As the final ACC underclassmen finish up their announcements on whether they’re returning to school next season or heading to the pros, it’s worth remembering one key truth about the NBA Draft: Nobody knows anything.
Take some of the most recent national champions from the state. In 2017, UNC finished off its redemption tour as Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks led the Heels to a national title. It came a year after Carolina, led by senior stars Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, fell heart-breakingly short in the title game. That group of five players combined for seven spots on All-ACC teams, including four first-teamers and an ACC Player of the Year award.
Six years later, the last Heel standing will be a player best known for crashing postgame press conferences he wasn’t invited to: Glue guy and good teammate Theo Pinson, who played in 40 games for the Mavericks this past season. Jackson, played in 23 for the Celtics before being traded and released, the third time he’s been cut in the last two seasons.
The 2010 Duke team has a similar story. Led by Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, the Blue Devils cut down the nets. The trio combined for seven All-ACC teams, four first-team selections and a Player of the Year trophy. And the last Blue Devil standing is a freshman who scored less than four points per game that year: Mason Plumlee. Glue guy Lance Thomas was the second-to-last man standing.
And, in those two seasons, the ACC player who has had the biggest impact on the NBA wasn’t on the title team and would take quite a few guesses to come to the mind of most league observers. Boston College’s Reggie Jackson is the league’s leading NBA scorer from the 2010 season, and Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell holds the honor from 2017. In both seasons, four players received more All-ACC votes than the player who ended up being the best NBA prospect.
That’s nothing new for the league. Over 69 ACC seasons, the league’s Player of the Year has gone on to play more NBA games than anyone else in the ACC a total of seven times, and he’s scored the most NBA points 11 times.
That includes some of the league’s biggest stars. Three-time Player of the Year David Thompson? Clemson’s Tree Rollins played more games in the league. So did UNC’s Bobby Jones. And UNC’s Walter Davis scored more points. Phil Ford? He won the hardware, but Mike Gminski lasted longer in the league and Clemson’s Larry Nance put up the most points from that season’s ACC rosters.
Ralph Sampson? How about Maryland’s Buck Williams. Michael Jordan? Teammate Sam Perkins played in more NBA games.
Danny Ferry? Dennis Scott? Rodney Monroe? Clemson’s Dale Davis was the ACC’s NBA games played leader all four years that those players won the league’s best player honor.
The list goes on and on. Tyler Hansbrough? Jeff Teague. T.J. Warren? Jerami Grant. Jahlil Okafor? Terry Rozier. Marvin Bagley? Teammate Gary Trent.
Part of the reason for the difference between league award voting and NBA success is that NBA teams aren’t necessarily looking for college production as much as NBA fit. That’s why Pinson and Thomas, with their length and specialties (Pinson’s defense and Thomas’ rebounding), can stick while bigger names can’t. It’s why NBA scouts were more intrigued with UNC’s Leaky Black this season than Armando Bacot and Caleb Love.
Another reason is that award voters tend to look at the top of the standings, while NBA prospects can come from anywhere, as Clemson’s run of NBA big men shows. If you chose Clemson’s starting big man each season, you’d end up with more NBA games and scoring leaders than if you picked the league’s MVP. That’s thanks to Rollins, Nance, Horace Grant, Dale Davis and Elden Campbell, who gave Clemson the best NBA career 12 times in an 18 ACC season span.
Over the 69 ACC seasons, the eventual NBA career games leader came from Duke 17 times and UNC 16 times. While that might be expected, third on the list is Clemson with 11, followed by Wake Forest with 10. Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Teague were the most recent Deacs leaders. Maryland (4) and South Carolina (3) are the only other teams to produce more than two.
Scoring leaders are again led by UNC (22 seasons) and Duke (16). Wake Forest is next with 11, followed by Clemson (5), Maryland (4) and Louisville (3).
So, as we begin the NBA Draft season and visions of Dereck Lively and Terquavion Smith dance in our heads, it’s worth taking a little deeper look. In 10 years, don’t be surprised if seldom-used FSU big Baba Miller is the last ACC player standing in the league. Or, based on history, perhaps Clemson center PJ Hall.