When Kevin Knox’s decision finally arrived on Saturday night, many North Carolina supporters reacted not with lamentable sadness, or even surprise. Instead there was relief: At least he wasn’t going to Duke.
For once, Duke could join in on UNC’s relative recruiting misery. Knox, the 6-9 wing forward who had been one of the top uncommitted prospects in the class of 2017, announced that he’d attend Kentucky. It was something of a surprise, indeed, but then again not much of one.
After all, Kentucky in recent years has more often than not had its pick of the best of the best high school players. So, too, has Duke, which is where many believed Knox to be headed. And then, somewhere closer to the other end of the recruiting spectrum, are the Tar Heels.
Nobody will feel sorry for them – not given their considerable basketball history and not now, a little more than a month removed from their sixth NCAA championship, and third in the past 13 years. These, as usual, have been good, memorable times for UNC basketball.
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Somewhere, they’re making preparations to stitch another national championship banner that will hang in the Smith Center rafters. Somewhere, they’ll be making more championship rings.
UNC coach Roy Williams might still be clearing room in his office, or on his walls at home, to hang more photographs from another national championship game victory. UNC hardly needs, or would welcome, any pity.
That’s part of the reason why its relative recruiting woes continue to be so confounding. Knox became the latest in a long line of coveted high school prospects to spurn the Tar Heels, and he did so on Saturday after UNC presented him with an especially strong case to come to Chapel Hill.
At UNC, Knox had a starting position waiting for him – the one vacated by Justin Jackson, the All-American and ACC Player of the Year who is entering the NBA draft. UNC last season built its offense around Jackson as much as it ever has around a wing player under Williams.
Knox would have had no shortage of opportunities to showcase himself. He also would have played alongside Joel Berry, the rising senior point guard who decided to return to school after leading UNC to the national championship. Berry arguably will be the nation’s best point guard next season.
None of it was apparently enough for Knox. Not the clear-cut starting position at UNC. Not playing alongside a point guard with Berry’s experience and skill. Not playing on a team that will enter the season as the defending national champion.
All of those would have been arguments in UNC’s favor. Kentucky, though, owns a strong argument of its own, and it remains the same, year after year, regardless of who’s back and regardless of how the Wildcats fared the season before: Come here, spend a year (or less) and then go to the NBA.
Sometimes it’s that simple. It appears to be that simple in Knox’s case.
This is what Knox told The News & Observer’s Jonathan Alexander on Saturday night, after Knox announced his decision to go to Kentucky: “It’s definitely a great school as far as getting guys into the league.”
That’s an inarguable point, and likely the one that most helped Knox make his decision. Since Knox’s middle school years, he has seen many of the most sought-after high school prospects in the country – the kind that he became – go to Kentucky and leave for the NBA after one season. And since his middle school years, Knox has seen few of those kinds of players choose to go to UNC.
In the past five recruiting cycles, including the class of 2017, UNC has offered scholarships to 49 players ranked among the top 25 prospects in their class, according to 247sports.com’s composite ranking. Only three of those 49 players have signed with UNC: Justin Jackson (No. 9 prospect, class of 2014), Theo Pinson (15, 2014) and Isaiah Hicks (16, 2013).
The top-25 cutoff, admittedly, is an arbitrary marker. Two of UNC’s most beloved players in recent seasons, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, arrived in school ranked outside the top 25 in their class, and they left with their jerseys headed for the Smith Center rafters. Berry, the tenacious point guard, was ranked 30th in his class, and talented center Tony Bradley No. 27, a year ago.
The absence of top-25 prospects in UNC’s recent classes is glaring, though, when compared to the classes at Kentucky and Duke. While UNC has signed three top-25 players in the past four years, Kentucky signed six in the class of 2017 alone, and Duke signed six in its past two classes combined. Since 2013, Kentucky has signed 25 top-25 players. Duke has signed 15.
Eight of 40 of those players will be incoming freshmen next academic year. Of the remaining 32, 17 played one college season before deciding to leave school and enter the NBA draft. UNC, meanwhile, hasn’t had a one-and-done player since Brandan Wright entered the 2007 draft. At the time, Knox was 8-years-old.
It isn’t for lack of effort. Williams, the UNC coach, has said repeatedly in recent years that he recruits the best of the best high school players, too. It’s just that, in large numbers, they’re going elsewhere. The most obvious reason why, and one that Williams has often cited, in his own unique parlance, is “the junk” surrounding his program – that being the ongoing NCAA investigation.
When it reopened in the summer of 2014, UNC was about to welcome a recruiting class that included Jackson, Pinson and Berry – three top-30 prospects. UNC hasn’t signed a class of that caliber since, and Bradley is the only McDonald’s All-American that UNC has signed in its past three classes, including this one. (UNC signed 25 McDonald’s All-Americans in Williams’ first 11 classes).
“The junk,” as Williams likes to say, offers a clear line of demarcation, and the uncertainty of the NCAA investigation has undoubtedly hurt UNC’s recruiting. Brandon Ingram, for instance, was one top prospect who cited the investigation’s role in his college decision. He decided to go to Duke, but acknowledged that he likely would have gone to UNC if not for the NCAA cloud.
To what extent the investigation has hurt UNC with other prospects, though, is difficult to ascertain. Even before the investigation reopened in 2014, it had been a while since a top-five prospect chose to go to UNC. Harrison Barnes remains the most recent top-five prospect to do so. He committed to UNC in 2010, and is now in his fifth NBA season.
And so while the junk is a part of UNC’s relative recruiting woes, it is only a part. Williams has built his program on the notion of family, togetherness and camaraderie. His best teams have, in fact, been teams – ones forged over time by past failures, and ones whose nuclei grew up together over a span of years.
It is an admirable approach in many ways, and one that has rewarded UNC with three national championships in Williams’ tenure. And it is an approach that clearly owes its roots to Dean Smith, who always believed that the name on the front of the jersey was more important than the name on the back.
Williams has tried to adjust that philosophy to the extent that his beliefs allow. He has tried to convince one-and-done prospects they can have just as much success, if not more, at UNC than at other schools. Yet for any number of reasons, top-25 prospects continue to reject him, and UNC.
Knox is only the latest. UNC offered him everything he could have wanted -- a starting position, plenty of playing time -- except what he might have sought most of all: a proven, quick path to the NBA, the kind that is becoming more and more well-worn at Duke and especially at Kentucky.