The North Carolina men’s basketball program features a tremendous history of NBA success.
Highlighted by all-time greats like Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Vince Carter, former Tar Heels have won 36 NBA championships — more than any other school — and 53 UNC players have been first-round draft picks, which is the second most in the country behind Kentucky. North Carolina also leads the ACC in the most total draft picks with 117.
As the NBA returns to a full season of capacity crowds, former Tar Heels will be relied upon to help their franchises compete for a championship. Here are three players who should make the biggest impact.
Wayne Ellington, who won a national championship in Chapel Hill in 2009, is set to start at shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers alongside superstars LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. The Lakers currently have the second-best odds to win the NBA Finals, so this team should be making a serious postseason run barring injury.
After shooting 42 percent from three last season for the Detroit Pistons, Ellington’s primary role with the Lakers will be to spread the floor and knock down perimeter shots.
He should see an abundance of those opportunities with the drive-and-dish abilities of James and Westbrook and the post presence Davis and Dwight Howard provide, and the team needs consistent shooting more than anything else. Ellington should also be able to stay on the floor late in games because of his career 84 percent mark from the free-throw line, so fans should expect to see the veteran play a lot on a very good team.
Last season’s NBA Finals featured two former Tar Heels — Justin Jackson and Cameron Johnson — with Johnson being the sixth man on the Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns. The 11th overall pick in the 2019 draft shot 35 percent from deep last season in a similar stretch-the-floor role as Ellington, and Johnson averaged 9.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.
During the postseason, Johnson shot an incredible 44.6 percent from three and 90.6 percent from the foul line, showing he can be a reliable piece on a championship-contending team.
The former All-ACC First-Team selection should continue to get plenty of shooting chances with future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul handling the ball, up-and-coming center Deandre Ayton demanding attention on the low block, and superstar Devin Booker averaging over 25 points per game over the last three seasons. Expect Johnson and the Suns to be right back in the thick of the championship push.
Harrison Barnes starts at small forward for the Sacramento Kings, and last season, averaged the most minutes of his career — 36.2 — while scoring over 16 points, collecting 6.6 rebounds and dishing out a career-high 3.5 assists per game. Barnes has shot 37.7 percent from three for his career, which has seen him play with the Golden State Warriors, where he won a championship in 2015, the Dallas Mavericks and now the Kings.
Sacramento’s playoff appearances are few and far between in recent years, with their last postseason run coming in 2006, marking the longest active drought in the NBA. Barnes’ veteran leadership and championship experience will be much needed on a team featuring young stars like De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton that is trying to learn how to win in the loaded Western Conference.
Other former Tar Heels
Coby White should continue to get good minutes for the Chicago Bulls backing up the recently-acquired Lonzo Ball, while Cole Anthony will get significant playing time on the Orlando Magic as Markelle Fultz recovers from a torn ACL injury. Other names to look out for are Danny Green on the Philadelphia 76ers, Nassir Little on the Portland Trail Blazers and Reggie Bullock on the Dallas Mavericks.
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