For the players from North Carolina schools, last week’s NBA Draft followed a similar pattern to the college basketball season they recently finished.
Duke dominated the headlines by having three players taken in the first 10 picks. North Carolina matched its rival with three first rounders, only with much less fanfare, while NC State came up empty in the selection process.
Zion Williamson was the first overall pick to the New Orleans Pelicans as expected, starting a run of Blue Devils that also included RJ Barrett to the New York Knicks at No. 3 and Cam Reddish to the Atlanta Hawks at No. 10.
Fellow one-and-done freshman Coby White was the first Tar Heel off the board at No. 7 to the Chicago Bulls, followed by Cameron Johnson at No. 11 to the Phoenix Suns and Nassir Little to the Portland Trailblazers at No. 25.
Although the Wolfpack didn’t have any members of its 2018-19 roster in the draft, former five-star signee Jalen Lecque was passed over in both rounds before signing a free agent contract with the Suns.
For the three now-former Duke teammates, draft night was a triumph that took much of the sting off the disappointment of not getting to the Final Four and winning the national championship that was predicted of them in their one and only season of college ball.
“To see Z go first, me go three and Cam end up (10), it felt great,” Barrett said in a press conference shortly after his selection. “I mean, we worked so hard and we had so many conversations over the year, definitely getting to learn about each other and learn what everyone goes through or went through to get to this point. So to see all our dreams being achieved is a special moment.”
It was a moment that held little suspense for the Blue Devils trio, especially Williamson, who separated himself from the rest of his class as the presumed No. 1 pick long ago. He’s known he would be going to New Orleans since the draft lottery last month.
And yet when his name was called by Commissioner Adam Silver last Wednesday, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound teenager was overcome by emotion as his name was announced — a reaction he said came from his “love of the game of basketball.
“You can hear people say things like, oh, that it was likely I was going to go No. 1, but I guess you don’t know until you actually go through it,” Williamson said at a post-draft press conference. “Hearing my name called and I was able to make it on stage without a tear, shake the commissioner’s hand, but in the interview my mom was standing beside me, my emotions just took over.”
It was an equally emotional experience for UNC’s White after his selection by the Bulls. Only instead of being able to celebrate with a beloved parent in person, the talented point guard could only wonder what his late father might have said to him in his moment of personal triumph.
“He’d tell me how proud he was for me and how he loved me, and he would just tell me this is only the beginning for me,” White said in a teleconference. “I’ve got a lot of success coming my way. I’ve just got to stay on the right path, continue to be who I am, be myself, stay true to myself, never forget where I came from and just continue to work like I have my whole life.”
As happy as White was for his own good fortune, he seemed even more excited when he learned that former UNC teammate Johnson had been taken a few picks later by Phoenix — much earlier than projected.
The video clip of his reaction to the news became a viral internet sensation.
“How can anybody do any better than what he did there?” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “He’s going to be an NBA player and he goes wacko talking about Cam and how hard Cam worked.
“I’ve always said it takes a special person to really rejoice and enjoy other people’s successes. And you saw that last night with Coby talking about Cam. The Bulls are getting a really, really talented player. They’re also getting a great teammate.”
Of those players from state schools that went undrafted, Lecque made out best by agreeing to a four-year deal with two years guaranteed at just under $1 million per year. UNC seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams signed as undrafted free agents with the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs, respectively, while Duke’s Marques Bolden and Wake Forest’s Jaylen Hoard earned tryouts with Cleveland and Portland.
Other players with state ties signing free agent deals include Campbell’s Chris Clemons (Rockets), UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok (Lakers), NC A&T’s Terry Harris (76ers) and Shaw’s Amir Hinton (Knicks).