As I wrote in a previous post, the list of former Tar Heels among the NBA's best players is remarkably thin—and as a matter of fact, advanced in age—for a program that has achieved such an incredible run of success over the past eight seasons.
The Tar Heels placed only two players in the top 100 in Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating this season, and only one, Ty Lawson, is a significant contributor to his team; the other, Brandan Wright, plays fewer than 15 minutes per game.
This development has been a decade in the making as Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter left their prime and neared the ends of their respective careers, and no one from the great teams of 2005 and 2009 stepped up to assume the mantle.
The reasons for the development, however, are more complex than observing the simple fact that Carolina players recently have not succeeded in the NBA. While the program has not produced NBA stars, its production of NBA players has not slowed, and the reasons for the lack of success are different for each. Some are based on the players themselves, and some are beyond the players' control.
With consideration of each of the program's 12 current NBA players, here are five reasons recent Tar Heels have not succeeded in the NBA, and to which of those twelve each reason applies.
While North Carolina cannot boast of a strong NBA presence, that doesn't mean every former Tar Heel has failed to succeed at the professional level.
The definition of success is relative to initial expectations, and for some, expectations were never high. The reality is that Marvin Williams and Raymond Felton are the only Tar Heels chosen in the top five of an NBA draft since 1998. Despite winning two national titles with star-studded rosters, the program just hasn't produced the sort of player whose game translates to stardom in the NBA.
Wallace, Stackhouse, Jamison and Carter gave the program four top-five picks in a three-year span from 1996-1998, and if those guys had not become All-Stars headlining a solid group of former Tar Heels, it would have been a surprise. The same cannot be said for the group drafted from 2005-2009, and that has much to do with the program attracting players who were built for effectiveness at the college level.
Tyler Hansbrough epitomizes this trend more than anyone, and he is one player who has succeeded in the NBA by meeting expectations that were never high. Sean May failed as an NBA player and is no longer in the league, but even if May had succeeded, his role would likely be similar to Hansbrough's. Both were the cornerstones of two great national title teams, but their undersized, conventional post games were not destined for the same role professionally.
Carolina's national title teams were uniquely comprised by a high quantity of first-round-caliber talent, but even the superstars of those teams were legendary college players, but not top-five draft prospects.
The profile of a top-five NBA draft pick includes several rare traits combined in the skill set of one basketball player; often a player can land in the lottery if he is elite in just one area, but those selected at the top of the draft are most often well-rounded players with elite scoring skills, elite size, and elite athleticism.
Those traits were easy to see in Stackhouse and Carter, and their potential presence was even easy to see in Marvin Williams, which made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 draft after one year of college.
However, Rashad McCants, Ed Davis, and Brandan Wright all had flaws that kept them inside the lottery but outside of the top five, and those flaws have become glaring in hindsight as they struggle to become successful NBA players.
McCants, who is now out of the league like May, is undersized for an NBA wing and a poor ball-handler, unable to play either guard position at the professional level. While he used his strength effectively to score on college defenders in a variety of ways, including in the post, he was unable to translate that game against much bigger defenders.
Davis and Wright lack polish in the post and much-needed bulk; both may go on to have successful careers eventually, but at the moment they fit the mold of a player who got by at the college level with superior length and athleticism, but has failed to match up in a league in which everyone has those traits.
Ty Lawson is the best former Tar Heel in the NBA right now and in no way can be labeled a failure, so he doesn't truly fit on a list of reasons why North Carolina players haven't achieved success. Nonetheless, Lawson is not, and likely will never be, a top-tier point guard in the NBA alongside Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, etc.
Compared to Carter and Stackhouse, who at their peak were among the best wing scorers in the league, that is a mild disappointment for the future standard bearer for the program's NBA cohort. Unlike McCants, Wright, Davis, and Hansbrough, Lawson possessed the complete set of skills and athletic abilities to be an elite NBA player; he only lacked the height.
If Lawson had eclipsed six feet, he would have at least entered the top 10 of the draft, and his success as a professional likely would have matched those expectations.
As mentioned earlier, lack of height also plagued McCants, and to some degree it limited Hansbrough and May, as well.
In the NBA, a league with little parity or upward mobility for its worst teams, it sometimes takes a lucky draw of good circumstances to go from draft pick to successful player. No former Tar Heel illustrates this more clearly than Danny Green, whose young NBA career is an unqualified success as a second-round pick starting and contributing on a title-contending team.
Green was picked up by a consistently successful, ready-made dynasty and tossed into the starting lineup after injuries required the team to do so. Green deserves tremendous credit for seizing the opportunity, but no such chance was ever there for the taking for players like Wayne Ellington and Ed Davis, who are toiling in small-market obscurity on non-playoff teams.
Ellington, in particular, finds himself in a rough spot considering his skill set. The Timberwolves have a glut of point guards, often playing two at a time instead of a shooting guard, and a glut of tweener forwards who can shoot well from outside, leaving Ellington without a role to fill and without many minutes.
Sean May warrants mentioning here, as well; though his height likely would have prevented him from ever becoming a star, he had some productive games for the Bobcats before injuries and poor conditioning derailed a promising career.
A theme of this article has been that the lack of success by former Tar Heels in the NBA should not be surprising; the players who have made us successful as a program were not predisposed for success at the professional level.
There are a handful of players, however, whose NBA careers have been significant disappointments relative to expectations that were for NBA stardom. At the top of that list is Marvin Williams, the highest-drafted North Carolina player in the league right now at No. 2.
Though it was unknown at the time, Williams entered what became a terrific situation: the Atlanta Hawks have drafted well recently and are a playoff team in the East. Williams, though, is only a modest contributor to that success, and there is a vacuum where he could be contributing much more.
We will never know if more time in Chapel Hill would have reoriented the trajectory of his career, but it is at least worth speculating. Williams awed Carolina fans with his athleticism and a couple of timely huge shots against Duke and Illinois, but as an offensive player he was raw. A year as the go-to scorer on what would have been an elite 2006 Tar Heel squad might have served him well.
Brandan Wright and Ed Davis could face similar criticisms. While not one of the star players of the 2005 and 2009 national title teams was expected to be an All-Star-caliber player in the NBA, Williams, Wright and Davis were, as reflected by their top-10 selection in the draft. If any of North Carolina's players could have succeeded in the NBA at the high level achieved by Stackhouse, Carter and company, it was these three that possessed the talent.
Yet none of them had proven the ability to assert himself and score consistently at the college level before leaving for the NBA. One more year, or more, might have changed that and prepared them for more success at the next level.