Cameron Johnson, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce.
After only one instance of dabbling in the graduate transfer market during his first 14 years as the Tar Heels’ head coach, Roy Williams has since landed three players to add another element to the North Carolina men’s basketball program’s recruiting.
The lone UNC grad transfer prior to the recent surge was Justin Knox, who came over from Alabama. Now, after Johnson’s departure, UNC will lean on two more transfers, Keeling and Pierce, in 2019-20.
One reason: With the launch of the NCAA transfer portal in October of 2018, it’s become easier than ever for athletes to announce their decisions to switch between schools.
Now, all an athlete has to do is go to their school’s compliance office and request to be entered into the portal. Schools don’t really have the option to decline a request, but can delay it for up to two days to make preparations. Once an athlete hits the portal, they’re fair game for other universities to talk to.
North Carolina guard Seventh Woods was one such player to make use of the portal, announcing his decision to leave UNC in April. Before that, Larry Drew II was the last player to transfer from UNC when he did so in 2011. Williams didn’t have a single player from the 2010-17 recruiting classes leave the program for greener pastures.
Johnson, conversely, made the switch from Pittsburgh to UNC in 2017 after averaging 11.9 points per game in his last season with the Panthers. In his two years with the Tar Heels, the forward started in 56 games, scoring 15 points per matchup and shooting 47.5 percent from the field.
Looking ahead to the 2019-20 season, Keeling and Pierce will be the latest case studies in North Carolina’s experimentation with the grad transfer market. CBS Sports had Pierce ranked as this season’s No. 6 graduate transfer in the country in August, with Keeling coming in at No. 11.
Other than football, men’s basketball had the most Division I graduate transfers from 2013-18. The actual volume of those transfers has more than tripled in recent years, rising from 38 players in 2013 to 121 in 2018. Division I college football, a sport with rosters more than five times the size of basketball, had only 45 more graduate transfers in 2018.
With the growing popularity of the transfer market comes many questions for North Carolina, but two things have proven to be certain. One is that the Tar Heels have yielded mixed results from the process so far, for both the team and the player involved.
In his final season with the Crimson Tide, Knox averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, but was forced to adjust to a more limited role in his only season with North Carolina. After his sole season in Chapel Hill, he bounced around professional leagues in Europe.
Johnson was the polar opposite. The sharpshooter dramatically improved his draft stock during his time at UNC and was selected with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
The other certainty is that fans shouldn’t be expecting this trend to become one of Williams’ primary options moving forward. At ACC media day, he made it clear that the turn to the transfer market was out of necessity.
“We will always address it as a need, but not initially, because I don’t want that,” Williams said. “... I do it out of need. I’d much rather have a freshman kid because it’s more fun.”
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