When opportunity Knox, UNC hopes it can answer

kevin_knox

Kevin Knox, a five-star forward from Tampa, Fla., is considering UNC men's basketball as one of his college options for 2017.

Kevin Knox, a five-star forward from Tampa, Fla., has had UNC on his radar for months. He is ranked 10th overall in the Class of 2017 and is the second-best small forward behind No. 1 overall prospect Michael Porter Jr. While he’s not a perfect fit for the Tar Heels, he’d be a game-changing get for the program.

North Carolina is in the thick of the recruiting battle for Knox’s services for next season. Duke, Kentucky and Florida State have long been in the mix, and Missouri appears to be making a late push headlined by the commitment of Porter.

Knox is projected to play just one season in college because he’s the perfect player for the modern NBA — a versatile, 6-foot-8-inches forward who can score at all three levels, has the physical tools to guard multiple positions on the wing and is only going to get better.

If Knox’s playing style sounds familiar, it should: Justin Jackson came to Chapel Hill with a similar scouting report. After Jackson declared for the NBA Draft last week, head coach Roy Williams can pitch Knox on the allure of filling his spot in UNC’s starting lineup. It’s too easy to just say Knox would take over Jackson’s role in the offense — in reality, Jackson is more of a pure shooter than Knox has been in high school. But Knox is more likely to come now that Jackson has left a scoring void.

A potential starting lineup could include Theo Pinson at the three and Knox at the four. Then again, Williams has been hesitant in the past to commit long-term to small-ball lineups. Four-out units — lineups with four perimeter players and one big man — provided a spark for the 2015-16 team late in the season. This past season, though, most lineups using Jackson at the four were sent to the chopping block after Pinson got healthy.

Williams’ brand of basketball demands two bigs on the floor and a healthy dose of post-ups. Knox doesn’t quite fit that Isaiah Hicks mold of a power forward who can be on the receiving end of passes to the blocks. On the contrary, the Tar Heels’ roster is already trending small with the emergence of stretch four and folk hero Luke Maye. Maybe the addition of Knox will start a full-scale metamorphosis for UNC into a small-ball team.

A more likely scenario is that a coach who just won his third national championship won’t scrap his trademark style. Instead, Knox would be slotted into Jackson’s role at the three. In transition, he’d thrive in UNC’s up-tempo style. In the half-court offense, he’d just be another cog in the machine, relegated to the cookie-cutter routine of running off pin-downs and zipping through zipper cuts. Knox, a big-time talent, should still thrive in that role.

There’s no clean equation where adding Knox equals a repeat. Knox plus North Carolina’s returning roster doesn’t automatically mean the Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets again next April.

But Knox would be a huge haul for the Tar Heel men’s basketball program; he would be the biggest recruit since Jackson in 2014 and the most hyped since Harrison Barnes, who was the top prospect in 2010. It would be tangible evidence of the positive impact of a championship on recruiting. And perhaps he could even be a sign that the dark clouds of the NCAA investigation that have affected recruiting for years are passing.

First and foremost, though, a Knox commitment to the Tar Heels would be the first victory since winning the national title — months before the first practice even begins.

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com

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