The 2014 McDonald's All-American Game will have a heavy blue tint to it. The top three classes in 247 Sports' current rankings—Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina—represent a combined 11 of the 24 prospects who will take the court in Chicago. The three schools join Kansas as the only programs who will suit up their entire recruiting classes in the annual showcase.
North Carolina's group doesn't have sexy one-and-done names in it like Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Kentucky's Trey Lyles or Kansas' Cliff Alexander. Wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson and point guard Joel Berry aren't listed on any 2015 mock drafts, and anyone who's already compiling mocks for 2016 has too much time on their hands.
What Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has accomplished in adding these three prospects is a rare feat among elite Division I college programs: He's added solid depth to augment a returning veteran core.
Unlike ACC archrival Duke or the perennial drive-thru at Kentucky, UNC is likely to return four of its five starters from the 2013-14 season. Rather than be saviors, the rookie Tar Heels will be students, learning Williams' system from players who have already put it in practice at venues friendly, hostile and indifferent.
What will Berry, Jackson and Pinson bring to Chapel Hill? Their performances in Wednesday night's All-American classic will offer some clues.
Heights and weights are taken from the official McDonald's All-American rosters.
Joel Berry (point guard, 6'1", 190 lbs, Apopka, Fla.)
Berry's not the largest point guard in his class or even in this game. He does, however, play like a much bigger man, fearlessly charging the basket and using his surprising strength to finish through contact. There may not be a physically stronger point in this class, and there almost certainly isn't one at his size.
Berry can break down a defense and get his points either through finishes at the rim or at the foul line, but he's also adept at finding the open men left by sagging defenders. Tar Heel bigs like Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks will find a great number of easy baskets in their future from working with the aggressive Berry.
In an ESPN.com Recruiting Nation video, analyst Reggie Rankin called Berry a better on-ball defender than either Marcus Paige or Nate Britt, UNC's current veteran point guard options. Berry averaged 2.4 steals per game as a senior at Lake Highland Prep. He could be a key catalyst for countless Tar Heel fast breaks with well-timed thefts.
A starter since he was a high school freshman, Berry is already a veteran leader. He won't have to assume that kind of mantle immediately at UNC, but once Paige leaves, the team will be in very good hands.
"My goal is to win a National Championship. We will be there" said Joel Berry.— Keeping It Heel (@KeepingItHeel) April 1, 2014
Berry's a good mid-range shooter, but he's still working on his three-point game. He can threaten if left open, but so should any backcourt prospect with his ranking.
A lack of size may hamper Berry against bigger guards, but no more so than what Paige experienced as a freshman.
Berry will start his career on the bench, learning to run the offense behind Paige and Britt. He will see plenty of playing time, though, when Williams decides he needs a higher-octane offensive lineup. A starting role isn't out of the question, but given more experienced options, Williams would rather ride with his veterans early on.
All-American Game Prediction
The UNC-Duke throwdowns start early, as Berry goes toe-to-toe with Blue Devil signee Tyus Jones. His minutes will be impacted by the presence of West teammates Emmanuel Mudiay and Tyler Ulis but expect Berry to line up alongside Mudiay on occasion.
Justin Jackson (forward/guard, 6'8", 200 lbs, Tomball, Texas)
Jackson can score from nearly anywhere on the court. He gets plenty of buckets in the 10- to 20-foot range, but he's not to be ignored from three-point range, either. Jackson has a wiry build reminiscent of Reggie Miller, and his shot could reach that level of respect by the time he leaves Carolina. On a team that sorely lacked perimeter threats after P.J. Hairston's dismissal, he'll draw minutes immediately.
Overall, Jackson will be an important piece of the offense quickly. He's a solid passer and ball-handler in addition to his shooting prowess.
While he's not the biggest or strongest player, Jackson can go get rebounds among the trees. According to his Scout.com profile, Jackson pulled nine boards in addition to scoring 29 points against top center prospect Myles Turner in a showcase game this season.
At nearly 6'8", Jackson's a difficult matchup if he lines up against a shooting guard. As a forward, he may need some more meat on his bones to compete against collegiate front lines.
Justin Jackson stoodout to me w his length for his position, shooting touch and scoring ability. Legit 6-8 three man. Due a ranking review— Jerry Meyer (@jerrymeyer247) April 1, 2014
That wiry build will hamper Jackson's ability to score around the basket. Time in the weight room will aid his ability to finish in traffic, but it'll take time.
On the defensive end, Jackson's long enough to make opponents' lives difficult, but he'll be an easy mark for beefier opponents who try to post him up.
Level of competition is often a concern for mid-major collegians as they try to transition to the NBA, but it may also be a valid question regarding Jackson. Home-schooled every year except sixth grade, Jackson routinely dominated fellow home-schoolers, playing for five consecutive national home-school championships, according to Tim Flatt of HSLive365.
Occasional showcase events like the one against Turner's Trinity High School team help the cause, but how quickly will he adapt to facing bona fide Division I competition every night?
Jackson could blossom into a Reggie Bullock type at UNC. Bullock was similarly built when he arrived in Chapel Hill, and he faced early growing pains. By his junior year, though, he was a capable enough scorer that the Los Angeles Clippers took him with a late first-round pick.
If the shots are falling early in the season, Jackson could become the first wing player off the bench. If not, expect him to warm the bench in a freshman season similar to Isaiah Hicks' or J.P. Tokoto's.
All-American Game Prediction
The East team won't need Jackson to scrap for rebounds, since it also suits up Alexander and a pair of seven-footers, Turner and Karl Towns. Therefore, the willowy Texan should be free to drift about the arc and free himself for jumpers.
Theo Pinson (forward/guard, 6'6", 190 lbs, Greensboro, N.C.)
Pinson is one of the best defensive wings in the 2014 class. He's capable of guarding three positions at the collegiate level, quick enough to chase shooters around screens and lengthy enough to threaten their shots. He'll see extensive playing time as a designated stopper against smaller teams with talented scoring guards.
His athletic ability makes Pinson a dangerous offensive threat anywhere inside the arc, and he's also a capable rebounder for his size. And can he dunk? Put it this way: He jumped over his mom to throw down at the Under Armour Elite 24 dunk contest last August, then cleared ESPN analyst Jay Williams to pop the crowd at Monday evening's Powerade Jamfest.
Pinson plays above the rim well enough that the rest of his offensive game can occasionally get lost. The YouTube video seen here should help remedy that.
"Inside the arc" is the operative phrase above. Pinson's three-point shot isn't very consistent, although he has made improvement during his senior year.
Pinson's left hand has long been considered his weak side. According to Rivals analyst Eric Bossi, however, he's shown improvement in that area during McDonald's All-American practices.
During high school games, Pinson's been free to take over at will. How will he adapt to playing a defined role in a proven effective system like Carolina's?
Like Jackson, Pinson will have some learning to do, but he should find minutes, thanks to UNC's recent dearth of quality wings. If nothing else, he'll see defensive stopper minutes off the bench. Lining him up next to ACC All-Defensive performer Tokoto could give opposing offenses ulcers. And it takes a lot of stress to give 20-year-olds ulcers.
By the time he's a junior—or potentially a sophomore, if he's a fast learner—Pinson could be a projected lottery pick.
Watching Theo Pinson run the floor is a thing of beauty. He's so quick.— Keeping It Heel (@KeepingItHeel) April 1, 2014
All-American Game Prediction
If the East coaching staff wants to play to win and less like an all-star affair, Pinson could see extended minutes. Potential matchups against the likes of UNLV commit Rashad Vaughn or Kentucky-bound Devin Booker could be worth a look. Pinson could be extra motivated if he takes on the former, intending to prove that UNC made the right choice in emphasizing his recruitment over Vaughn's.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his podcast, check out The Back Iron. This week: a Final Four preview and who's to blame for the coaching unrest at Tennessee.