North Carolina hasn’t had a player leave for the NBA after his freshman season since Brandan Wright in 2008. Wright now has company: On Wednesday, Tony Bradley announced he was staying in the NBA draft to become the second one-and-done of Williams’ tenure at UNC.
Bradley has always had the talent to be an NBA player. He was a McDonald’s All-American and fringe five-star recruit out of high school who entered UNC as the program’s biggest recruiting win since the 2014 class that included Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry II.
Bradley didn’t start a game for UNC as a freshman, instead coming off the bench behind two former McDonald’s All-Americans who stayed all four years in Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. With both Meeks and Hicks graduating, Bradley would have been the Tar Heels’ best frontcourt player next season and one of the top returning sophomores in the country.
Instead, he’s entering the draft to start his pro career. Bradley is currently projected as a second-round pick by DraftExpress, where he’s slotted at No. 42 to the Utah Jazz. Of all the deadline decisions for the NBA draft, Bradley choosing to leave UNC feels like it will have the biggest ramification on next season’s national landscape in college basketball.
This might kill North Carolina’s chances of repeating
North Carolina was going to be in good shape next season even without Meeks, Hicks, and departed junior star Justin Jackson. Berry was back at point guard, and Pinson returned on the wing for their senior seasons. Bradley would have given the Tar Heels a third star as a big man who could score inside and also defend the paint.
Now that he’s gone, UNC is left without much of a contingency plan. There’s still Luke Maye, the former preferred walk-on who became a legend for his game-winner against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. He projects to start at power forward. At center, it’s a lot more uncertain.
The two most likely options are incoming freshmen Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman. Brooks committed to UNC in April after getting released from Mississippi State. He’s a 6’10, 230-pound big man ranked as the No. 120 player in the class of 2017 by Rivals. Huffman is 6’9, 235 pounds and is considered a three-star recruit.
To put this in perspective: Last season, Hicks became a first-time starter as a senior after sitting on the bench for three years as a former McDonald’s All-American. Next year, UNC will possibly be starting a true freshman who wasn’t even a top-100 recruit in his class.
North Carolina will still have a good team led by arguably the top point guard in the country in Berry. But it’s hard to envision the Heels repeating with such a thin and inexperienced front line.
Could this be good for UNC long term?
It’s possible. Williams can now point to Bradley when he’s on the recruiting trail and say, look, we can send freshmen to the NBA, too. Perhaps that will help UNC land other NBA-caliber talents in recruiting and ultimately be beneficial for the program.
It sounds good in theory, but there are reasons to be skeptical. For the most part, the freshmen who end up going one-and-done would have been one-and-dones anywhere.
Take UNC’s recent recruitment of Kevin Knox, for instance. Knox ultimately chose Kentucky. A year from now when he’s a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft, John Calipari will point to Knox as another example of What Kentucky Can Do For You. The truth is that he would have been a one-and-done at UNC, or Duke, or Florida State, or Mizzou, or any other school in the country.
These days, many of the top high school players are already brand names long before they ever pick a college. That’s certainly the case for UNC’s top target in recruiting right now: class of 2018 star Zion Williamson. Before he starts his senior year of high school, Williamson already has Drake wearing his jersey. He has nearly 700K Instagram followers. He is a sensation for his dunking ability. Williamson may ultimately choose UNC, but it likely has little to do with Bradley’s decision.
Maybe it’s different for a player ranked in the 20s or 30s of his class instead of a truly elite talent like Williamson. But for the most part, the one-and-dones are identified long before they make their college decision.
If you are recruiting top-20 prospects, you have to expect them to go pro
Here’s a look at ESPN’s top 20 players in the class of 2016:
So: Nine of the top 10 recruits and 15 of the top 20 recruits in the country became one-and-dones. That makes Miles Bridges’ decision an anomaly, not Bradley’s.
UNC probably didn’t expect Bradley to be a one-and-done after having such a small role as a freshman. Even if the team got two years out of him, Roy Williams would have been happy to take it. At the end of the day, college coaches still need a contingency plan if they’re getting truly elite recruits because the allure of NBA money is so strong.
North Carolina has been losing recruiting battles to Duke and Kentucky for years. Williams offered Brandon Ingram and Knox and many other top recruits, he just didn’t land them. Still, UNC has been able to stay just as successful on the court because fringe NBA prospects like Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson decided to stick around for an extra year.
Whether by luck or design, finding players who stay in school has helped Carolina maintain its status as one of the country’s most winning programs. As Bradley just showed, it just isn’t something Williams can count on every year.