Jay Williams is now an ESPN basketball analyst, but he was once the national player of the year at Duke and strongly considered attending North Carolina. When asked about UNC's recent drought of top-10 national recruiting talent in a group interview I was part of at the Smith Center on Friday, Williams had some interesting comments about the loss of what he called UNC's “mystique.”
“Kids used to be knocking on the door to go to school here, 24-7,” Williams said of North Carolina. “I was one of those kids, which is why I recognize it, right? And now it seems like between what Cal (coach John Calipari) has been able to build over at Kentucky, getting kids to be in that one-and-done society, what Coach K has been able to do with USA Basketball -- everybody has found a hook. And the thing is: ‘What is North Carolina's hook?’ ”
North Carolina hosted 6-foot-8 small forward Kevin Knox, a top-10 player in the Class of 2017, for his official visit Saturday night at the Smith Center as the Tar Heels blew past Virginia, 65-41. But Jay Williams said his many friends who are North Carolina fans do not think Knox will come to Chapel Hill, having seen that scenario play out many times over the past few years. Knox, who is from Tampa, Fla., is also considering Duke, Kentucky and Florida State.
A reporter suggested to Jay Williams that the Tar Heels’ regular appearances in the Sweet 16, its national runner-up finish in 2016 and its two national titles under coach Roy Williams should be enough of a “hook.”
“Man, when you think about kids, you would think so,” Jay Williams said. “But it's about how you market yourself. ... Kids are different these days. These kids almost look for the quick fix. I think these kids look for what's shiny and what looks great and ‘Who can sell me the best?’ Now I'm not saying that Roy Williams isn't a great seller, but I don't know that I put Roy Williams in the same category as I do John Calipari, right?
“Calipari is getting you to talk about his program around the NBA draft, when he's like, ‘All of my players are going to make themselves eligible (for the draft).’ ... And he dominates headlines. And if you're a kid at home, a top-20 player with a chance to go to the next level, you're reading that and saying, ‘You're damn right that's where I want to go to school.’ ”
No ‘one-and-done’ for a decade
Kentucky and Duke have been the programs most successful in recent years getting the “one-and-done” level of player, who often completes only his freshman season before entering the NBA draft. Kentucky's “one-and-done” NBA success stories are numerous and have included John Wall, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. Duke won its most recent national championship in 2015 with a lineup that included three freshmen who played their final game for Duke in the title contest (Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow).
Roy Williams has not gotten a top-5 national recruit since forward Harrison Barnes in 2010 -- although forward Justin Jackson was a top-10 recruit and is a star on the current North Carolina team that leads the ACC standings. North Carolina has not had a “one-and-done” player since forward Brandan Wright in 2007.
Since Barnes, North Carolina has offered 11 scholarships to prospects who were ranked among the top five players nationally in their respective classes.
All 11 chose to go elsewhere, as Andrew Carter of The News & Observer noted in a story recently, and five of those 11 went to Duke. Current Duke players Harry Giles, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum received offers from North Carolina but spurned the Tar Heels.
Those misses have built a perception that Roy Williams constructs winners from players who will stay in school longer and get better while there -- like point guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson, two four-year players who were Top-45 recruits and led the charge to the national title game in 2016.
But Roy Williams said recently that's a false perception -- that he wants the “one-and-done” guys just like everyone else.
“All the guys that they’ve got, we tried to recruit also,” Roy Williams said recently about Duke. “I mean, there’s no question about that. We’ve been in a time period here where it’s been difficult for us to get the top-10, top-20 recruit.”
Roy Williams has said several times that some of that difficulty is because of the long NCAA investigation of academic misconduct at UNC, which is still percolating and has inspired negative recruiting.
Where is the next UNC superstar?
Jay Williams said he also believes today's players -- far too young to have ever seen former North Carolina and NBA star Michael Jordan play live -- do not have a superstar role model in the NBA who is an ambassador for the Tar Heels in the way Jordan was.
“Harrison Barnes is great,” Jay Williams said. “But he's not that next-tier level, that stardom level in the league where it's easier to follow. Who's going to have a chance to be that player (from North Carolina)? I don't know. This is a UNC team that's going to have a chance to win a championship, same as last year's team. But I don't see one guy where you say, ‘He's going to be a star on the next level.’ And that's something that you're used to seeing when you think about Tar Heel blue.”
In Sunday night's NBA All-Star Game, North Carolina did not have any alumni participants. Duke had one -- point guard Kyrie Irving. Jay Williams, however, said that the public praise showered on Coach K from current and former NBA superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant -- mostly stemming from their relationship with Krzyzewski during his long and successful run as the head coach of the USA Basketball team that won three Olympic gold medals -- meant a lot to young players.
It should be noted also that Roy Williams is hot on the trail of high school junior Zion Williamson of Spartanburg, who might be the best player in the Class of 2018 and is certainly in the top five. Roy Williams has either seen Williamson play or visited him four times this season, according to Williamson's high school coach.
Williamson, of course, is also considering Kentucky and Duke.