Justin Jackson is gone. We know that much, at least.
We know that Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt are, as well. Those three were North Carolina seniors who played their final college game during the Tar Heels’ national championship victory against Gonzaga. Jackson, a junior who received consensus All-American honors and earned ACC Player of the Year, has decided to enter the NBA draft.
And so UNC’s national title defense will begin next season without at least three starters – Jackson, Hicks and Meeks – and without Britt, one of the team’s most important reserves and best defensive players. But who else might leave? And who else might arrive? And how different might the Tar Heels look when the roster solidifies, after those decisions become final?
The only real answer, for now, is nobody knows. The deadline for college freshmen, sophomores and juniors to declare their eligibility for the NBA draft is Sunday. From there they have until 10 days after the NBA draft combine, which runs from May 9-14, to decide to return to school, as long as they haven’t signed with an agent.
At UNC, it seems certain that Joel Berry, the junior point guard, and Tony Bradley, the freshman forward, will at least declare their eligibility for the draft, giving themselves the opportunity to go through the pre-draft process – the combine, workouts with teams – and receive feedback from NBA personnel. The question is whether Berry and Bradley will remain in the draft and leave UNC for good.
One doesn’t need to be a college basketball aficionado to understand how important their decisions are to UNC’s future. If Berry returns to school, he’d enter his senior season a likely preseason All-American, and among the favorites to win ACC Player of the Year honors. If Bradley returns, he’d enter his sophomore season as the centerpiece of the Tar Heels’ offense on the interior.
And if neither returns then, well, it’d be more of a rebuilding year for UNC than coach Roy Williams likely envisioned. Williams and his staff, though, are still hoping that Kevin Knox, one of the top uncommitted players in the class of 2017, chooses UNC over Duke, Missouri, Florida State and Kentucky.
The Tar Heels are also recruiting Garrison Brooks, a 6-9 power forward who recently rescinded his commitment from Mississippi State. Brooks isn’t considered a top-100 prospect but he’d still be a valuable pick-up for UNC given its lack of established depth in the post. And so for UNC, there are a lot of moving parts, and several roster scenarios, some of them significantly more enticing for Williams, and Tar Heels supporters, than others. Here’s a look at some of those scenarios:
EVERYONE BACK (ALMOST), AND EVERYONE COMING
The most pleasurable of possibilities for UNC, however unlikely it might be. In this scenario, Berry and Bradley decide to return to school, after flirting with the NBA. And not only that, but UNC also successfully recruits Knox and Brooks. Here’s what the team looks like at the beginning of next season:
PG Joel Berry, Sr.; SG Kenny Williams, Jr.; SF Theo Pinson, Sr.; PF Kevin Knox, Fr.; C Tony Bradley, Soph.
F Luke Maye, Jr.; F Brandon Robinson, Soph.; G Seventh Woods, Soph.; G Jalek Felton, Fr.; F Garrison Brooks, Fr.; F Brandon Huffman, Fr.; G Andrew Platek, Fr.; F Sterling Manley, Fr.
What to like: Everything, if you’re Williams. Or a UNC fan. Nothing, if you didn’t like seeing the Tar Heels win a national championship. Because this would be, without a doubt, a Final Four caliber team, and one every bit capable of winning a second consecutive national championship.
What not to like: For UNC, there would be nothing not to like here. This is the dream scenario.
How likely is it: It’s the dream scenario for a reason – because dreams don’t always turn into reality. As tantalizing as it might be for UNC fans to think about this roster possibility, there’s little to no chance of it coming to fruition.
BERRY OR BRADLEY LEAVES … BUT KNOX COMES
A good news/bad news sort of thing here, with UNC losing Berry or Bradley – but not both – but Knox deciding to come to UNC, softening the blow of the loss of another returning starter. In this scenario, Brooks chooses UNC, too. Here’s what the lineup would like like without Berry:
PG Woods; SG Williams; SF Pinson; PF Knox; C Bradley
And what it’d look like without Bradley but with Berry:
PG Berry; SG Williams; SF Pinson; PF Knox; C Brooks/Huffman/Manley
UNC’s bench would still be relatively deep in both scenarios, especially in the backcourt.
What to like: If either Berry or Bradley returns, that’s still great news for UNC, given that both could easily find reason to leave. Berry’s value can’t be overstated. He was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and helped lead UNC to the national championship on two bad ankles. Still, Bradley might be even more significant to UNC’s hopes, given its lack of established options behind him.
What not to like: Berry’s absence would likely leave Woods to run the offense, and he went through some difficult stretches as a freshman. Woods isn’t a traditional point guard (but then again neither is Berry), and he’s still adjusting to UNC’s system. The loss of Bradley would probably be even more damaging, as he’s UNC’s only established traditional post player.
How likely is it: Much more likely than the dream scenario above, but still probably not the most likely outcome. Berry and Bradley both have good reason to leave: Berry because he simply could be ready to start making money for playing basketball, and Bradley because he’d likely be a first-round pick. So both could leave, and Knox’s decision is uncertain, as well.
BERRY OR BRADLEY LEAVES … AND NO KNOX
This is where it starts getting a bit dicey for the Tar Heels. The first two scenarios would leave them relatively intact, and the addition of Knox would help minimize UNC’s losses. In this scenario, UNC loses one of Berry or Bradley, and Knox decides to go elsewhere. For that matter, so does Brooks. Here’s what the lineup looks like with no Berry and no Knox:
PG Woods; SG Williams; SF Pinson; PF Maye; C Bradley
And without Bradley and Knox, but with Berry back:
PG Berry; SG Williams; SF Pinson; PF Maye; C Huffman/Manley
In both of these scenarios, the bench starts to thin, primarily because now Maye is starting. Without him coming off the bench, UNC’s reserves are: Robinson, Felton, Platek and either Huffman and Manley, or only one of those two, if Bradley were to leave.
What to like: The phrase “be thankful for what you have” comes to mind, and UNC supporters would need to be thankful here that one of Berry or Bradley decided to return to school. That’s no small thing, and the return of either one of them would make UNC significantly better than it’d be if both left.
What not to like: If Bradley leaves and if Knox doesn’t choose UNC, then the Tar Heels’ frontcourt situation becomes about as dire as it ever been under Williams. As much as Maye improved during his sophomore season, he’s not a traditional post player, and Huffman and Manley, the two freshman, both enter college as sub-200 prospects nationally. Neither one is likely ready to start, but without Bradley (and Brooks), one of them would likely have to start.
How likely is it: Difficult to say, but it’s certainly possible. It seems likely that UNC will lose at least one of Berry or Bradley, and if Knox commits to UNC, he’d be the first top-10 prospect to do so in years.
THE MASS EXODUS, AND NO KNOX
And here is the doomsday scenario – one in which UNC supporters will have to remind themselves, over and over, that they just watched the Tar Heels win a national championship not long ago, right? In this scenario, Berry and Bradley both leave and the Tar Heels also strike out on Knox, and Brooks. Just like that, four starters are gone, as well as Bradley, the team’s best (and only) up-and-coming post player. And to make matters worse for UNC, Knox spurns the Tar Heels.
PG Woods; SG Williams; SF; Pinson; PF Maye; C Huffman/Manley
Bench: Robinson, Felton, Platek, Huffman/Manley
What to like: Well, this would be interesting. The Tar Heels would go from a national championship victory to entering the season as underdogs. It’d be a compelling story, to see how Williams fares with such a roster, and there’s enough here on the wings – with Woods, Williams, Pinson, Felton and Robinson – for UNC to go small and force an even faster tempo. In this scenario Felton, the freshman nephew of former UNC standout Raymond, would have more of a chance to play a leading role.
What not to like: No Berry, no Bradley and no Knox leaves UNC without an established scorer, and with only one McDonald’s All-American on the roster. That’d be Pinson, who’d instantly become UNC’s leading man. The Tar Heels would face more questions than maybe they ever have under Williams, especially in the post.
How likely is it: Not too far-fetched, really. Berry has accomplished about as much as any college player can, and he could be ready to turn professional, even if he’d face long odds at making an NBA roster. Bradley, meanwhile, possesses enough size and skill to be drafted, even if he hasn’t yet reached his potential. If both leave, and if Knox and Brooks choose to go elsewhere, this would become UNC’s reality.
There are other scenarios, too: Both Berry and Bradley return, and Knox doesn’t come. Knox comes, and both Berry and Bradley leave. In the first of those, the Tar Heels could still be well-suited to defend their championship. In the second of those, frontcourt depth again becomes an immediate question. The past two years, UNC has thrived amid enviable stability.
This year, the Tar Heels’ spring is significantly more uncertain.