The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

For UNC, an NBA Draft to remember for many different reasons

Cameron Johnson Iona NCAA
Senior guard Cameron Johnson (13) was the leading scorer with 21 points on March 22, 2019 during the first round of the NCAA Championship against Iona at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Imagine that before the 2018-19 season, I told you that not one, but two UNC men’s basketball players would find themselves as lottery picks in the next year’s NBA Draft. 

Now imagine that I told you that neither of them was Nassir Little. 

It would’ve been hard to believe. Very hard to believe.

Gotta love draft night.

First-year guard Coby White was the first off the board for the Tar Heels, taken seventh overall by the Chicago Bulls. NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski described White as “perhaps the fastest rising prospect” in pre-draft workouts; in reality, White’s stock has been on an astronomical trajectory since North Carolina’s season began, a year in which he led the Tar Heels in assists and was second on the team in points. Before the year, White was seen as a late first round pick at best.

According to a post-draft statement from Roy Williams, White was also in "serious consideration” for the third, fourth, fifth and sixth overall picks. Not bad for a guy ranked 96th in his high school class three years ago.

Then, in what was considered the surprise of the night, the Phoenix Suns leapt at the chance to take UNC's Cameron Johnson 11th overall. Indeed, though many thought of Johnson as perhaps the best shooter in the draft, he was projected as a late first-round talent, not a lottery pick. White, upon hearing the news, summed the moment up pretty succinctly: “That's crazy. That's so love, bro.”

Hey, at least the Suns know exactly what they’re doing, right?

For one to rise, though, another has to fall. Little would have to wait another hour to hear his name called, eventually being picked 25th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers. Among those drafted before him: Tyler Herro, Sekou Doumbouya, Goga Bitadze, Luka Samanic, Matisse Thybulle and, just before Little, former Virginia guard Ty Jerome.

Here’s your reminder that before the year, Little was the No. 3 player in his high school class according to 247Sports, a consensus top-five pick with can’t-miss athleticism and a ridiculous motor. 

If he logged the same amount of minutes as, say, Darius Garland, the No. 5 pick who sat out most of last season due to injury, he likely would’ve still enjoyed a lottery pick selection. Instead, Little averaged 9.8 points per game off the bench in his lone season in Chapel Hill – not enough, seemingly, in the eyes of most scouts. That’s why they play the games, as they say.

The good news for Little is that the draft is a crapshoot. Would anyone be shocked if he turned the motivation of his late selection into a long and productive NBA career? Not really. Williams said he was “dying” for Little as he waited to be picked, but called him “the absolute steal of the draft."

In any event, Thursday was still, by any metric, the most successful draft night in nearly a decade from a UNC perspective: three first round picks for the fourth time in program history (most since 2012, when there were four), while Little became the 52nd Tar Heel selected in the first round, an NCAA record. With Cole Anthony’s arrival in Chapel Hill, many expect him to become the 53rd in a year’s time.

Of course, the team that selected you is a lot more important than the slot in which you were taken. For Little, Portland is a franchise with a solid infrastructure, coming off of a Western Conference Finals appearance, with a desperate need for a young, athletic forward to lock down opposing wings: [Larry David voice] Pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Chicago and Phoenix, though? Not so much. The Bulls last season were best known for having a drill sergeant as a coach who was still woefully unable to discipline his young players, while the Suns just made their *checks fingers* 258th consecutive trip to the lottery. 

Only time will tell if White and Johnson can help turns things around for their new franchises. That’s most of the fun of draft night – the unpredictability. Perhaps the night wasn’t what Coby White, Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little had anticipated, with each having their own reasons as to why.

But that’s over now. The chips have fallen. For three of the newest former Tar Heels, the only thing that matters is what comes next.


@DTHSports |

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.