The last twenty-four hours have numbed some of the pain (or not) and forced North Carolina’s five potential lottery picks to begin thinking about next year, and the rest of their lives.
Because of changes to the NCAA rules, the underclassmen have only a few weeks to decide whether they will enter the 2012 NBA draft. Exactly one year ago, I wrote that UNC would see all three major draft prospects return, which they did despite the—ahem—polite comments coming from both informed readers and Duke fans.
Well, Tyler Zeller has played out his eligibility, and only waits to see where in the first round he will be drafted (and whether his freshman brother Cody at Indiana will go ahead of him). On top of that, longtime Roy Williams assistant Jerod Haase announced today that he has accepted the head coaching job at UAB.
But the remainder of the Tar Heel squad that has a realistic chance to go pro—sophomore PG Kendall Marshall, sophomore SF Harrison Barnes, junior F John Henson and freshman F James Michael McAdoo—all have the chance to be drafted in the top half of the NBA draft on June 28th... should they decide to leave.
Last year, I thought the Tar Heel players’ decisions to return were straightforward. Zeller had academic reasons to stay, Henson had things to prove on the court, and Barnes had a championship to win. This year, it isn’t so simple.
Kendall Marshall’s decision depends purely on his priorities. It appears relatively certain he will be drafted in the first round, and unlikely that by staying at Carolina for another year or two he will improve his draft stock.
Who is most likely to return to UNC next year?
He is not getting more athletic and he has little to prove as a facilitator.
On the other hand, the pass-first college-loving point guard galvanizes the UNC roster and makes every game more exciting and enjoyable for his teammates—which is why I think Marshall holds the cards.
Sure, every player has at least one good reason to go pro. Barnes is again projected as a top-ten pick. Henson saw injuries wear on him at the end of the season and is also a likely lottery pick. And James Michael McAdoo—he of the 15 minutes per game—may well be the highest-drafted UNC player of all. Go figure.
But say Marshall comes out tomorrow and says, “I’m back, back for good. I’m staying four years at UNC and—while I realize my teammates each need to do what’s best for them—I hope they come back to do what we should have done this year.”
Call me crazy, but I can see his fun-loving partner in crime and major beneficiary of his distributive talents John Henson coming along for the ride. All of a sudden, that’s starting to look like a high-caliber team. Marshall and incoming freshman PG Marcus Paige, Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland returning from injury, Reggie Bullock coming into his own and John Henson patrolling the paint?
And perhaps that deep, talented squad looks appealing to the competitor in Harrison Barnes, who knows something will be missing so long as his resume lacks that NCAA Championship. And those 28 minutes per game Zeller played? All yours, James Michael. Come show what you can do with the role you carved out at the end of the year.
Far-fetched? Probably. If I had to guess, I think only Marshall returns to Chapel Hill in the fall. But Kendall might also represent the only hope—as is the case on the court—at bringing the guys together and putting together one more run.
That’s a whole lot more than Austin Rivers can say.