Before Duke successfully recruited Jahlil Okafor, it did the same with Jabari Parker and, before him, Austin Rivers and Kyrie Irving – all players who arrived among the best prospects in their class, and three of whom left school after one year for the NBA.
A couple states away, Kentucky has had its pick in recent years of the best of the best high school players in the country, and last season Kansas – the program North Carolina coach Roy Williams used to lead – successfully wooed Andrew Wiggins, who went No. 1 in the NBA draft.
Williams and UNC, meanwhile, have mostly been left to watch the most prized high school recruits go elsewhere. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, Williams said Friday, the day before his team’s rematch against Duke in the regular-season finale for both teams.
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Asked if he was troubled by recent recruiting trends – and, specifically, the trend of Duke year after year landing freshmen who have had an immediate impact before departing for the NBA – Williams said he was bothered more by something else.
“What troubles me is that for three years we’ve been trying to recruit with a lot of junk going on,” he said. “That’s not been very comfortable, so I’m looking forward to having the junk over with and see if we can get back to doing some good things. But we’ve been able to get some really good kids.”
“The junk,” as Williams put it, describes an assortment of issues. The NCAA reopened its investigation into the bogus African studies courses that for nearly two decades boosted the grades of athletes and non-athletes alike. A year ago, Williams’ team played on without its best player, P.J. Hairston, who lost his eligibility amid concerns that he accepted an inordinate amount of impermissible benefits.
Those problems have undoubtedly damaged Williams’ recruiting efforts. The past two years have been challenging, too, for while Kentucky and Duke have had their pick of prospects, UNC often hasn’t.
In fact, Williams, said, UNC has had difficulty even enticing prospects to visit Chapel Hill.
“The toughest thing is that we haven’t been able to get kids on campus like we did for the last nine years I was at Kansas and the first six years here,” he said. “If I really worked a kid and really wanted a kid, we always at least got them on campus.
“And the last three years we’ve had a busload of kids that we couldn’t even get on campus.”
Barnes was last top 5 recruit
The Tar Heels recruited well enough last season, at least. The team’s three freshmen – Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson – were all ranked among the top 20 prospects in the nation, according to ESPN.com. It was one of the country’s best classes.
But it still wasn’t as good, according to the experts, as Kentucky’s class. Or Duke’s.
UNC during a 92-90 overtime loss at Duke on Feb. 18 proved the talent gap between the two programs isn’t as wide as it might have seemed on paper. The Blue Devils, though, clearly have more players whom the NBA teams will covet.
Parker last summer was the No. 2 overall selection in the NBA draft. Okafor is projected as the likely No. 1 pick if he makes himself eligible – as he’s expected to do – after this season.
UNC, meanwhile, hasn’t had a player drafted among the top 15 since 2012, when Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall were all picked that high. Tyler Zeller, another UNC player, went 17th in the draft that year.
Evan Daniels, the national college basketball recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said UNC is still as popular as ever among high school prospects. The schools most often mentioned by high school players as their dream destination, he said, have remained UNC and Kentucky.
Even so, Daniels said, UNC is “very particular about who they recruit and the situations that they recruit. And I think it’s smart.”
He said Williams is slower than some coaches to offer scholarships. Building a relationship first, and evaluating a player’s character and fit, is more important to Williams than it might be to other coaches, Daniels said.
“He hasn’t stopped working,” Daniels said. “Just because he hasn’t gotten top-five players doesn’t mean he’s not getting after it. They’ve gotten more of the next tier of guys.”
For whatever reason, concern of impending NCAA sanctions, or the perception that other programs do a better job catering to the most talented prospects, UNC hasn’t landed a top-five recruit – according to ESPN.com’s rankings – since 2010, when Barnes chose the Tar Heels. During the same span, Duke has signed four top-five prospects.
Two – Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones – will be on the court at the Smith Center on Saturday night. Both said recently that Williams recruited them – Justise Winslow, another Duke freshman, said the same – but neither Okafor nor Jones seriously considered UNC.
Okafor said UNC wasn’t among his final eight schools. Duke’s recent development of Parker, Rivers and Irving didn’t factor into his decision, Okafor said.
“I can’t speak for everybody else,” Okafor said. “But my personal opinion about that is going into college, thinking about one and done, that kind of messes up your career at college. … When I was coming in, my thought was national championship, national championship.
“Winning and getting better.”
Still hunting one-and-done talent
The one-and-done model, as it’s sometimes described by fans and analysts, has had mixed results. Kentucky won the national championship in 2012 thanks in large part to freshmen – including No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis – who remained in school for just one season.
Duke, meanwhile, experienced a one-and-done of a different kind with Rivers and Parker. The Blue Devils lost their first NCAA tournament game in 2012, ending Rivers’ only season with the team, and that happened again last season, with Parker.
Because UNC hasn’t signed one-and-done players in recent seasons, it has created the perception that Williams might not be interested in recruiting those types of prospects. That’s not true, though, he said.
“I’d take them in a heartbeat,” Williams said. “You tell me that Marvin Williams is playing tonight at midnight and he’s a high school prospect, I’d stick out a thumb and hitchhike. Brandan Wright – I’d stick out a thumb and hitchhike.”
Marvin Williams and Wright remain the only UNC players who have departed for the NBA after one season in school. Williams, who recently earned his degree after returning for years for summer school classes, left in 2005 and Wright in 2007.
Since then, Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have all landed prospects who remained on campus for only a season. Those teams have had widely varying results with those players, many of whom never seriously considered playing for the Tar Heels.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Marcus Paige, UNC’s junior point guard and four-star prospect in 2012, said Friday. “It might bother our coaches and staff. But I like the team that we have. We’ve got some experience. We have talent, too. Our freshmen class is not too shabby. They’re all five-star, top 25 recruits in themselves.
“So it doesn’t really bother me. There’s different ways to build a team, and I think what we have here can potentially be really successful and the next couple of weeks will determine that.”
Jackson and Pinson, two members of UNC’s freshmen class, said other schools tried to negatively recruit against UNC when they were deciding where to go. The negative recruiting has likely only increased, given the NCAA’s decision last summer to reopen its investigation.
Williams has secured but one commitment – from Charlotte-area power forward Luke Maye, who is not a consensus top-100 prospect – from a current high school senior. The Tar Heels for years have been recruiting Brandon Ingram, a highly regarded prospect from Kinston, and Williams has made a priority of the 6-foot-7 Jaylen Brown, who is considered the top unsigned prospect in the class of 2015.
Both Brown and Ingram, Daniels said, have expressed concern about the program’s future given the uncertainty surrounding the NCAA investigation. Williams, meanwhile, continues to try recruit the best of the best to UNC amid undesirable circumstances.
“It’s laying blame somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know. You can make your opinion. I mean, it’s only happened the last three years. … I mean, we never failed to get a kid on campus that we really wanted to for 15 years.”
Williams and his staff didn’t always land their desired targets. But at least they visited. Now they’re not even doing that as often, and they’re going elsewhere to play, too – some of them for the Tar Heels’ greatest rival.