In the fall of 2009, I had the fortune of attending UNC's basketball alumni exhibition, which featured current professional players in the NBA and abroad who played their college ball in Chapel Hill. It took only a few moments to realize that veterans Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter were, by a significant margin, the best players on the court.
Those two players being UNC's most notable recent NBA stars, that revelation is unsurprising until you consider the circumstances. Jamison and Carter were Carolina's best professional basketball players 10 years ago, as well, and the program has won two national titles, been to four Final Fours, and reached seven Elite Eights since then. At the time, Jamison and Carter were about to enter their 12th NBA season and were nearing the end of their prime, yet no player from the historically successful 2005-2009 Carolina teams appeared ready to unseat them.
As the following ranking of Carolina's 12 current NBA players will show, three years were enough for one former national champion to prove he is up to the task. But that alone does not change the fact that the crop of professional Tar Heels is remarkably thin, especially relative to what it once was.
Very few are complaining in Chapel Hill, where it is a source of pride that Roy Williams succeeds at the highest level with college superstars that make serviceable but not spectacular professionals. More than any college coach in America, Williams can make a viable claim to rival the John Calipari model for building a program with one that achieves equal success through a different means.
Nonetheless, Carolina fans do follow the professional careers of their favorite former Tar Heels, and when able they boast about their successes, especially in comparison to those who played at Duke.
As we look forward to the upcoming NBA draft and the potential of four 2012 Tar Heels to shore up the NBA's Carolina corp, here is a ranking, in order of current effectiveness in the NBA, of those twelve Tar Heels still in the league, along with final thoughts on where the 2012 group may eventually fit in.
Stackhouse is the elder statesman of the group, having outlasted his UNC classmate Rasheed Wallace into his 17th NBA season. By now only a rarely used bench player, he last averaged double figures in points in 2008, and the scorer who averaged 29.8 points per game for Detroit in 2001 hasn't eclipsed a 20 point average since 2003.
His longevity has been impressive, and for Tar Heels who grew up in the '90s (like myself), he will always be a favorite. But he is the only player on this list who doesn't crack the primary rotation for his team, reducing him to a relic of a past era in which Tar Heels led the league as superstars.
*the PER number is cited from John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Ratings, which can be found here
Ellington finds himself this far down the list as the least developed of the post-2009 former Tar Heels, and by far the most one-dimensional. Ellington's PER of 9.33 is the lowest of any player on the list, which is likely attributable to his lack of contribution as an assist-maker or rebounder. Even less promising is that he hasn't quite found his trademark three-point stroke at the professional level, hovering just below 35 percent on the season from beyond the arc.
Ellington still finds himself playing significant minutes for a budding young team in Minnesota, a tremendous opportunity if he can seize it. If he can shoot the ball better from outside, he can stick around in the league for a while as a role player on a good team. But the former Final Four Most Outstanding Player is not a candidate to take on the mantle of Stackhouse as an elite NBA guard.
Haywood is the only active Tar Heel to play on an NBA championship team, playing a contributing role on the Dallas Mavericks' run to the title last season. Haywood has lasted over a decade in the league largely because of his defense, and his 6.5 rebounds per game and 1.0 blocks per game in just 22 minutes of playing time are responsible for his PER.
In his best years, Haywood was a solid starting center, and if nothing else, he can be noted on this list as the only long-term NBA player Carolina produced from 1999-2004. In his current role, he accomplishes what he is asked to do as a defender, but little else.
Davis's numbers are nearly identical to Haywood, but with a slight edge in PER and the fact that he is hopefully, unlike Haywood, only getting better. It has been disappointing to see Davis fail to assume a larger role with the woeful Raptors, though unsurprising after seeing him fail to emerge as a leader and star with the 2010 Carolina squad.
As I wrote in my previous post on the future legacy of Kendall Marshall, Davis finds himself on somewhat of a UNC alumni blacklist, having left Carolina in a cloud of failed expectations, a frustrating season and questions about his motivation and attitude.
Even if Davis does reach some level of effectiveness in the NBA as a starter, it is difficult to see Carolina fans taking too much credit for him. As long as he is toiling in Toronto on a bad team, it is unlikely to be an issue.
The last three seasons have not been kind to the player that might have been the best on the floor during the 2009 Carolina alumni game. In the season prior to that game, Carter averaged 20.8 points per game for New Jersey, but his production began to drop off steadily the next year, and has taken a nose dive in 2012. Carter is experiencing his first single digit season scoring average of his career at 9.7, and his 40 percent field goal percentage keeps his PER just a hair above Stackhouse's.
Carter's season is a telling sign that the era alluded to in reference to Stackhouse—in which there were a handful of Tar Heels included among the NBA's best players—is coming to a close. Carolina has not had a player since Carter who was so obviously well suited for the NBA, with his polished skill set, size, and overwhelming athleticism.
Harrison Barnes came to Carolina as perhaps the best candidate to replace Carter as an elite scoring wing, but his performance in his sophomore season has left serious doubts about nearly every aspect of his game. Virtually no one will now expect to Barnes to achieve the level of stardom achieved by Carter—and like Davis, even if he does, Carolina fans will not passionately follow his career like they did Vince.
In addition to being a superstar player, Carter was a rookie of the year, a revolutionary slam dunk champion, and an Olympic gold medalist who performed perhaps the greatest in-game dunk in basketball history over a 7-foot-tall French player. Other than win an NBA title, there was little left he could do to endear Carolina Nation to the NBA, and it remains unclear if there is a Tar Heel who can replace him in that respect.
If you want to capture in statistics the dearth of former Tar Heels among the NBA's best players, note that only one Tar Heel ranks in the league's top 50 in PER.
If you want to stump a Carolina fan in a game of sports trivia, see if they know that player is Brandan Wright, whom many casual fans forget even played in Chapel Hill. Wright's game is designed to achieve an absurd PER since he cleans up rebounds and accumulates blocks at a well above average rate, and his offense comes mostly from high-percentage put-backs and dunks.
Over just 15 minutes per game of playing time, Wright is currently contributing 1.3 blocks per game and a respectable 6.7 points, making him the best candidate on the list to improve his standing if he can gain more minutes.
On the question of whether his emergence would matter much to Carolina fans, however, the answer is no: He played only one season for a team that failed to make the Final Four. Everyone else from that team stayed, and they went to back-to-back Final Fours and won a national title after he left. Fans will remember Deon Thompson, who currently plays in Europe, but not Brandan Wright.
Wright is the third player on this list who plays for the Dallas Mavericks; only Carter's fading career ever mattered much to Carolina fans, which prevents the Mavs from becoming a serviceable replacement for the moribund Charlotte Bobcats.
Williams enjoys hanging around Chapel Hill in the summers to play pick-up with the current team, and he hit a couple of huge shots—one against Duke in Chapel Hill and another in the national title win against Illinois—preserving himself a strong legacy as an enduring Tar Heel. Had he reached the expectations set for him as the No. 2 overall draft pick, he would have certainly been a viable candidate to replace Carter as the most closely followed Carolina pro.
Calling Williams a bust is too strong of a word, since he is an effective role player for the Atlanta Hawks team that rescued the franchise from the cellar. But he is just that, a role player, even though in his seventh NBA season he is in the thick of his prime. That isn't what the Hawks were looking for with the No.2 pick, nor will it draw much attention from a Carolina fan base that is inclined toward disinterest in the NBA.
Danny Green is the pleasant surprise on this list, a player whom no one would have projected to appear ahead of teammates Wayne Ellington, Ed Davis and Brandan Wright.
He is the only former Tar Heel in the league who was not chosen in the first round of the draft, and thus is the only one who did not enjoy the automatic lease on an NBA career that comes with the guaranteed contract. Whereas recent seasons have seen lottery picks Sean May and Rashad McCants fizzle out of the NBA after their initial contracts, Green took the reverse route and capitalized on an opportunity in San Antonio that arose due to injuries.
As a role player on the star-studded 2009 national championship team, Green made his name and his legacy as a Tar Heel by doing all of the little things exceptionally well—grabbing the tough rebound, making the hustle block—and contributing the occasional big night or timely shot. He is playing a similar role for a San Antonio Spurs team that places among the league leaders, demonstrating the benefit of finding a spot on an already established contender to begin your career.
Few thought Green would emerge as he has for the Spurs this season, certainly not as quickly into his career. But even though he is exceeding expectations, like Williams, his potential to draw attention is limited as a role player.
When the Charlotte Bobcats drafted Felton with the fifth pick in the 2005 draft, and then chose Sean May with the 13th, the two were hailed as a pair of Tar Heels who could simultaneously generate excitement among the hometown Carolina fans and contribute to making the new franchise a playoff contender. Neither occurred, which proves as much about the level of Charlotte's disinterest in the NBA as it does about Felton's respectable career.
Felton does not compare to the value teams are looking for with the fifth pick, but he has become a viable starter in the NBA. That he failed to reach the level of the two point guards taken ahead of him—Chris Paul and Deron Williams—cannot be held against him, except in the critical eye of the Bobcats fan who wishes we had sent the picks used on Felton and May to Atlanta for the right to draft Paul.
He finds himself this high on the list largely because he is one of only three former Tar Heels currently playing more than 30 minutes per game, minutes he earned with consistently solid but not spectacular play.
It should surprise no one that Hansbrough, the tough-minded, relentlessly hard-working and reliable four-year player, has become exactly the kind of pro he was expected to be. As one of the first players off the bench for the Pacers, he has been able to score in many of the same ways he did as a Tar Heel, especially by getting to the foul line and knocking down nearly 80 percent.
Even as a non-starter, he ranks this high on the list because of his overall contributions in limited minutes, which are good for a PER better than all of the players behind him except Williams and Wright. Playing for the Pacers, a team defined by its distinctly un-NBA committee approach of role players, Hansbrough receives a boost above his statistical production. He is surrounded by players of comparable ability, and he has played his role to contribute to the Pacers unforeseen rise up the Eastern Conference standings.
Hansbrough is one of the most beloved players in the long history of Carolina basketball, yet as a player who defied the era of early departures with his college-style game and the immense value he placed on winning a collegiate championship, he seemingly cooled fans to his NBA career before it even started. Fans did not expect him to become an NBA star; they hardly expected him even to fit in playing in a league that lacks the passion and ethic of Psycho-T.
He is thus quietly carving himself a valuable role on an emerging team, but if at some point in the next few years he finally earns a starting spot, Carolina fans may notice.
Carter may have faded, but there is no question that his former teammate, even in his 14th NBA season, looms large over the NBA's Carolina alumni.
His career will ultimately be an underrated one for having spent nearly its entirety on bad teams; the sincere excitement among Carolina fans when he was traded to LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago faded when the Cavs flamed out of the playoffs and James left for Miami. Jamison was once again toiling in the cellar with little hope to make the playoffs.
Nonetheless, the ceaselessly professional Jamison is turning in a critically solid effort for the Kyrie Irving-led rebuilding project. The lone notable veteran on the team, Jamison leads the team in minutes and trails only Irving in points per game. Even as he is asked to take on a large role for a young losing team, his PER remains above the league average; he ranks third on this list in that category, with the obvious leader being the sparingly used Wright.
Jamison's resistance to falling down this list demonstrates the void that will be left when he retires.
As the best player on a playoff team, Lawson is without question the most effective and most significant Tar Heel in the current NBA.
On a balanced Nuggets roster—eight players average double figures in scoring—Lawson remains the leading scorer while also leading the team in assists and steals. He manages to chip in nearly four rebounds per game from the point guard position, and his numbers add up to give him the best PER on this list other than Wright, making him the only Tar Heel playing significant minutes to rank in the league's top 100.
After his incredible ACC Player of the Year performance in 2008-2009, many saw this coming, which makes it even more remarkable that Lawson slipped to 18th in the draft. At only 24, Lawson has a long career ahead of him as a starting point guard, and mostly likely will occupy this spot as the resident former Tar Heel star of the NBA for the indefinite future.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to achieving the stardom of Carter or Jamison is the strong corp of point guards headlining the NBA; Lawson isn't likely to increase his scoring load beyond what it is this season, which will prevent him from attaining the level of Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams.
But to the extent that Carolina fans want an NBA star for whom to root as a member of the Carolina family, Lawson is the guy. A run in the playoffs for the Nuggets would go a long way toward alerting fans to the success achieved by their former All-American.
Having gone through the list, is their any question to which of the two recent national title teams was better? Jawad Williams and Bobby Frasor recently had a public exchange on Twitter in which they represented their respective teams in a hypothetical matchup, during which Frasor made the conclusive argument that the 2009 team technically included three ACC Players of the Year: Hansbrough, Lawson and Tyler Zeller.
Beyond that fact, the 2009 team included five of the twelve players on this list, and three of the top five, compared to only Felton and Williams for 2005. The 2009 team was more dominant on their way to the title, and as the NBA careers of its players suggests, they were more talented.
As mentioned earlier, Barnes was once heralded as the best pro prospect to play for Carolina in over a decade. After a disappointing sophomore season for Barnes, it is anyone's guess who, if any, of these four players will eventually become solid starters in the NBA.
Ironically, the safest bet is the senior Zeller. As a polished 7-footer who runs the floor exceptionally well, knocks down his free throws and already has a reliable mid-range jumper, he has the size and tools to contribute immediately in the NBA. If he lands in a favorable environment, expect him to develop on a similar trajectory to Hansbrough, making up what he lacks in toughness with superior size.
Despite the intense criticism of many areas of his game, Barnes remains a lethal jump shooter with deep range, and he will never face a situation in the NBA in which he plays with a point guard of the caliber of Larry Drew or Stilman White. When surrounded by talented players who lift his burden to score, there is no doubt Barnes can play a role in an NBA offense, if not as the go-to scorer.
To be successful, Kendall Marshall will need to land on a team with four polished and talented scorers ready to benefit from his distribution of the ball, the only skill Marshall currently possesses on an NBA level. Henson, meanwhile, possesses perhaps the greatest potential of the group, but remains raw on offense.
It is hardly worth a detailed attempt at projecting what this list looks like in 2015, especially before we know where these four will land in the draft, but here is a first attempt:
1. Ty Lawson
2. Tyler Hansbrough
3. Brandan Wright
4. Tyler Zeller
5. Harrison Barnes
6. Danny Green
7. Raymond Felton
8. Marvin Williams
9. John Henson
10. Kendall Marshall
11. Ed Davis
12. Brendan Haywood
13. Wayne Ellington