A year ago, North Carolina men's basketball had one consensus lottery pick, Nassir Little. The 6-foot-6 forward was a projected top-five pick lottery by most NBA draft boards and ready to take the league by storm. He just needed to do one thing – complete one mandatory year removed from high school, which he chose to do at UNC.
A year later Little wasn’t a top five pick, he wasn’t a top 10 pick, he wasn’t even a lottery pick. Little spent most of draft night staring at the big screen, watching team after team pass on him, eventually going No. 25 overall to the Portland Trailblazers.
Meanwhile, two of Little’s UNC running mates – Coby White and Cameron Johnson – entered the season with low draft expectations. Most experts pegged Johnson as an early second round pick and did not have White listed as a draftee.
Both were lottery picks, with White going No. 7 overall to the Bulls and Johnson going No. 11 overall, ending up with the Suns via trade.
The dichotomy begs questions. How did this happen? Whom is to blame? Whom is to credit?
For a portion of the college basketball fanbase the focus shifted immediately to head coach Roy Williams. After all, Williams hasn't landed as many top tier NBA talents as Kentucky’s John Calipari or Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Under Williams, only five Tar Heels have bolted for the NBA after a single season: Marvin Williams, Brandan Wright, Tony Bradley, White and Little.
Defenders of Williams will point to White and Johnson as proof that Williams can develop talent if given the chance.
Naysayers will point to Little’s perplexing draft night to hammer home the belief Williams is incapable of developing top tier talent.
But how can Williams both be given credit for elevating some players into the NBA lottery and simultaneously “ruining” the draft stock of another?
That doesn’t add up.
To this point in North Carolina basketball history, 52 first round draft picks have been produced, 32 of those under Williams. If there’s anything we know it’s that the Hall of Fame coach knows how to develop talent (duh).
What, then, explains the conundrum that occurred on draft night?
Put simply, for most college players, if you're a projected lottery pick, you go. Why risk another year playing for free and putting your body at risk of injury when you can make millions? Thus, high school prospects with NBA hopes are left with two options during their mandatory year removed from high school:
The first, ball out.
Whether it be in college or overseas for a professional team, absolutely dominate competition. Put all the doubts to rest whether or not you belong in the league. Each year there are a few players in the lottery who do that. The rest are mostly educated guesses.
This year’s crop of one and done players was made up of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Darius Garland, Coby White, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish, Tyler Herro and Romeo Langford. Williamson and Barrett were the only no brainers; both excelled during their only year at Duke. While their games are far from finished products, they’re more than ready for the next level. For the rest, a reasonable argument could’ve been made for them to stay another year.
The second and less favorable option: spend quality time developing your game.
Ja Morant, De’Andre Hunter, Jarrett Culver, Rui Hachimura, Cam Johnson and PJ Washington all did just that on the way to becoming lottery picks.
Morant wasn’t ranked out of high school. Culver wasn’t even a top 300 ranked high school player. Johnson – the most surprising of them all – spent five years in college battling through injuries, and Washington said in numerous conversations he needed more time to craft his game.
In each of their cases, they didn’t really “choose” to go back to school, it was chosen for them. These players didn’t have lottery pick potential after their first year, and for some even after years two and three. If they did, they would have left.
White and Johnson rose because they gave NBA teams more reasons to draft them this year. Both consistently showed a quality the NBA covets, the ability to score. Little struggled in that area, so he fell.
Evaluating talent isn’t easy, people mature at different rates, but the NBA does themselves no favors with their one year removed rule. It creates a flawed evaluation process, limiting teams to one year of advanced level game tape on top prospects. A season's worth of college production matters, but that isn’t enough information for the millions of dollars NBA teams are investing into draftees.
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