The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday August 9th

Analysis: Cam Johnson, Justin Jackson and a history of UNC players in the NBA Finals

<p>Graduate guard Cameron Johnson attempts a layup in the first half against Louisville in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.</p>
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Graduate guard Cameron Johnson attempts a layup in the first half against Louisville in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.

Former UNC basketball players have a long history with the NBA Finals, and this year the Phoenix Suns' Cam Johnson and the Milwaukee Bucks' Justin Jackson have made it there, vying for the championship.

Johnson started his college career at Pitt before transferring to UNC. After a prolonged fight for immediate eligibility, Johnson turned into an impact player for two seasons of highly-ranked UNC basketball. While at UNC, he developed into a quality NBA prospect with his lanky size and deep shooting ability and was selected as the 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft.

This past NBA season, Johnson averaged 24 minutes, 9.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 0.6 steals per game. He has made a significant impact on the 2021 NBA playoffs, taking his play to another level. 

In the postseason this year, he is averaging 21.3 minutes, 8.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 0.9 steals per game. Despite a decrease in playing time, Johnson increased his production in the other categories. He has also made some impact plays during the playoffs, including a highlight-reel dunk over P.J. Tucker in game three of the finals.

Jackson played three seasons with the Tar Heels and was a member of the 2017 national championship team. After the season, he declared for the draft, being selected with the 15th pick by the Portland Trail Blazers. Jackson then bounced around the league for a few seasons before being signed by the Bucks in April, where he has played as a reserve.

UNC has a total of 18 former players that have won the NBA Finals. Six players from UNC have won three or more championships; the most recent player to join this club was Danny Green in 2020 with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Despite having 14 more active players in the NBA, Duke has 13 fewer NBA champions than UNC with five. Nearly one-fifth of all former Tar Heels who went on to play at the highest level of the sport went on to become champions.

The first former Tar Heel to win an NBA championship was Billy Cunningham with the 76ers in 1967. Alongside NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain, Cunningham averaged 19.7 points per game in the series, helping to defeat the San Francisco Warriors in six games.

Cunningham was one of Dean Smith's first star players at UNC. The power forward averaged 24.8 points across his college career and still holds the program record for his career rebounding average of 15.4.

Charlie Scott, the first Black scholarship athlete at UNC, also won an NBA championship while playing with the Celtics in 1976. A five-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, Scott was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2018 after an illustrious career.

And of course, there's the most famous UNC basketball alumnus: Michael Jordan, who has a legacy of winning NBA Finals. After winning the 1982 NCAA Championship with UNC, Jordan went on to win six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. Adding five regular-season MVPs and 14 All-Star selections to go along with his rings, Jordan cemented himself as arguably the greatest player the sport has ever seen.

The only other former UNC player to have won NBA Finals MVP was James Worthy with the Lakers in 1988. Worthy won a total of three championships throughout his career as a part of the "Showtime" Lakers dynasty.

With former players on both teams in the 2021 NBA Finals, UNC will get to add another NBA championship to its history of alumni success no matter the outcome.


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