Which School Could Assemble a Stronger NBA Starting 5 Right Now, UNC or Duke?
We here on the NBA side of the basketball world are hardly immune to the allure of college hoops. The pageantry, the passion, the sheer unpredictability of March Madness, the one shining moments, guys named Spike—these are all fantastic phenomena that can't quite be found at the professional level, no matter how hard the league's brain trust may try to change that.
And let's not forget about the rivalries. Oh...the rivalries.
No hardwood hatred is more celebrated than the Tobacco Road tete-a-tete between Duke and North Carolina. These two basketball blue bloods will meet for the 238th time Saturday, when the 14th-ranked Tar Heels put their 12-game winning streak on the line against the fourth-ranked Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
As much as this rivalry is one of regional animus, what sets UNC-Duke apart from every other matchup at the collegiate level is the ever-lengthening list of great players who've taken part in making it what it is today—from Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Rasheed Wallace in Chapel Hill to Grant Hill, Mike Gminski and Christian Laettner in Durham.
But before we all delve into the next chapter of this storied standoff, with pros like Jabari Parker and James Michael McAdoo itching to leave their mark, let's have a look at which school could field the superior starting five of active NBA players.
At first blush, Irving would seem like the easy choice here. He's the only one of the two who's been an All-Star—and an All-Star MVP, at that. Irving also outpaces Lawson in scoring (21.5 points to 18.3) and has turned the ball over less frequently, by both raw and percentage measures, than his Carolina counterpart.
But when it comes to the No. 1 duty of a prototypical point guard—distributing the ball—Irving has a lot to learn from Lawson. The Denver Nuggets floor general ranks third in the league in assists (8.9 per game) and seventh in assists percentage (37.4 percent), the latter of which tracks the share of his teammates' field goals that a given player has had a hand in creating.
Compare that to Irving, whose raw assist average (6.3 per game) and assist percentage (31.9 percent) don't even register in the top 10. It's no wonder, then, that Lawson, not Irving, checked in as one of the best passers around in Jared Dubin's clever study of the topic for Bloomberg Sports.
Above all else, it's the job of a point guard in today's NBA to lead his team to victory. Lawson's Nuggets have fallen off dramatically from last season's 57-win pace, though that has more to do with injuries and organizational turnover than with any failings on his part. He tasted the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as a pro, albeit without once winning a series.
That still beats Irving, whose Cleveland Cavaliers were calamitously bad in his first two seasons and, despite every attempt (ill-fated or otherwise) by the front office to fix the rest of the roster, remain outside of the picture in the Eastern Conference in 2013-14.
Irving's All-Star accolades are plenty impressive, and his talent and age (21) portend great things in the future. But if I'm putting together a team right now, I'd rather go with the guy who's won a title in college and garnered extensive postseason experience in the pros over the one who's never won anything and has battled injuries at every turn.
Edge: Ty Lawson
The Matchup: J.J. Redick (Duke) vs. Vince Carter (North Carolina)
I was tempted to include Danny Green here as UNC's representative at shooting guard and (perhaps) move Vinsanity to small forward. But the prospect of pitting two of the most iconic players from this historic rivalry against one another was too good an opportunity to pass up.
And, frankly, the discussion is more interesting, given the degraded states in which these former Orlando Magic teammates are currently operating.
Redick missed 21 games earlier this season with a hand injury and has been on the shelf for the Los Angeles Clippers' last 12 with a bulging disc in his lower back. Carter's missed just one game for the Dallas Mavericks in 2013-14, but, at 37, he's nowhere near the high-flying superstar he was during his heyday with the Toronto Raptors.
Though, the man once known as "Air Canada" can still get up from time to time.
When healthy, Redick is clearly the superior player between the two. He's in the midst of a career year with the Clips, averaging 15.7 points on 45.9 percent shooting (39.6 percent from downtown) and can play more than 24 minutes per game without his coach clamoring for a substitution.
But if actual fitness matters (and I assume here that it does), Carter, whose size and athleticism are both superior to Redick's as is, gets the nod.
Edge: Vince Carter
The Matchup: Luol Deng (Duke) vs. Harrison Barnes (North Carolina)
Finally, the Dukies get a clear-cut advantage in this five-on-five fricassee. Deng is a two-time All-Star who was the second-best player on a 62-win team that cracked the conference finals. Granted, that came three years ago, when Deng was with the Chicago Bulls, but his all-around game has improved since then.
And, at the age of 28, he's smack-dab in the middle of his prime.
Barnes, on the other hand, has regressed since his breakout performance in last year's playoffs with the Golden State Warriors. The second-year swingman has struggled to adjust to his new role as the Dubs' sixth man, averaging 8.5 points on an abysmal 38.6 percent shooting when operating as a reserve this season.
Barnes might have a case to make if we consider only the work he's done as a starter—which he would be if this game were to go down. He's tallied 13.9 points (on 44 percent shooting) and 4.8 rebounds in his 16 starts in 2013-14.
Even then, Deng's superior production (16.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists) and well-established track record of leadership and veteran savvy put him ahead of his highly touted competitor.
Edge: Luol Deng
The Matchup: Carlos Boozer (Duke) vs. John Henson (North Carolina)
The hypothetical tilt between Boozer and Henson would be a fascinating study in basketball contrasts.
On the one hand is Boozer, a skilled scorer and bona fide double-double machine who struggles on defense and, at 32, is past his prime. Boozer's age may be a deterrent, but his battle-tested toughness and playoff experience—he's gotten out of the first round five times and advanced to the conference finals twice—point to time well spent.
On the other hand is Henson, a spry, 23-year-old defensive dynamo whose freakishly long arms allowed him to tally 13.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and just over two blocks in his 20 starts. That length comes at a cost, though: Henson's still incredibly slight of frame, at 6'11" and 220 pounds.
Moreover, the second-year stick man has little, if any, veteran knowledge of note to offer. He played all of 33 minutes in the Milwaukee Bucks' four-game whitewash at the hands of the Miami Heat last spring and will watch the playoffs from home this year on account of his team's tank-tastic performance.
Edge: Carlos Boozer
The Matchup: Miles Plumlee (Duke) vs. Tyler Zeller (North Carolina)
When it comes to centers, Duke and UNC have quite a bit in common. For one, neither school has produced a top-quality pivot in over a decade.
In recent years, both have come to rely on Hoosier State basketball bloodlines to fill their respective frontcourts. Duke plucked all three Plumlee brothers (Miles, Mason and Marshall) out of Fort Wayne, while UNC nabbed Tyler Zeller, middle brother to Zellers Luke and Cody, out of Washington, Ind.
Plumlee and Zeller are just about even on experience. Both came into the NBA as first-round picks in 2012, and while Zeller had the upper hand after starting 55 games with the Cavs as a rookie, Plumlee has just about pulled even by getting the nod at center in all 59 of his appearances for the Phoenix Suns this season.
Stylistically, these guys are about as close to polar opposites as centers can be. Plumlee is a hard-nosed high-wire act who thrives as a finisher in the pick-and-roll, while Zeller's more of a finesse guy who, while athletic enough to get up and down the floor like a gazelle, is more prone to popping out for mid-range jumpers than he is to rolling to the rim.
This matchup is basically a wash, but since Plumlee starts for a Western Conference playoff contender—and Zeller, well, doesn't—he'll get the nod from the "Committee of One" (i.e., me).
Edge: Miles Plumlee
All things considered, Duke has better NBA parts than UNC does, and those parts would, hypothetically speaking, come together to create a much more harmonious sum.
Irving may not be a pass-first point guard, but he'd have plenty of room to roam on this team, with Redick and Deng spacing the floor from beyond the arc. If Irving wants to pick-and-roll, he can call on Plumlee to give him a hand. And if he'd rather pick-and-pop, Boozer's jumper will be at the ready.
In a year or two, the Tar Heels might take the cake. Vinsanity will probably be gone, but a sweet-shooting Danny Green would take his place, with an in-his-prime Lawson running the show and three members of the talented 2012 squad coming into their own.
For now, though, the Blue Devils have the upper hand at the pro level.
And, with the type of talent that Mike Krzyzewski is reeling in these days, they might expand that gap in the years to come.
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