The first USA TODAY men’s college basketball coaches poll came out Thursday, and after looking at Kentucky’s top prospects, now I’ll look at the rest of the top teams and their respective NBA prospects as we head into the season. Next up is North Carolina, who actually tied with Kentucky at the top spot in the poll with 749 votes, although the Tar Heels edged the Wildcats 12 to 11 in first-place votes.
The Tar Heels are an intriguing team with a lot of length, athleticism and experience flowing throughout the roster. Seniors Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James are all hoping to have their best seasons, guards Nate Britt and Joel Barry are looking to make jumps, and swingman Justin Jackson is poised for big-time improvement in Year 2. But just who are the best NBA prospects on this talented North Carolina team?
5. Kennedy Meeks 6-9 265 C Junior
The junior big man is looking to build off a solid sophomore campaign in which he went for 11.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Meeks is the only player on this list outside my preseason big board of the top 60 prospects, and that speaks to the depth of this Carolina team. Meeks is in the best shape of his life, now at 265 pounds after arriving on campus as a McDonald’s All-American at 317. This should be a breakout season for him, as his conditioning should be well-improved from the past few years.
As an NBA prospect, Meeks’s conditioning will continue to be a question as basketball continues to trend smaller and smaller. He already has shown signs of a mid-range jump shot to help space the floor, as he knocked down 47.0 percent of his two-point jump shots last season, per hoop-math.com. He’s yet to space the floor out to long range, but with better conditioning and speed, maybe he’ll take some threes this year. At 6-9.5 with a 7-foot wingspan, he has the size of a power forward, but he might be able to guard more modern-day centers with his strength and girth — although he’s still a bit of a tweener up front. Watch out for Meeks in the next two years as he continues to develop, as he could be worthy of a second-round selection down the line.
4. Marcus Paige 6-1 175 PG Senior
Marcus Paige occupied the final spot on my big board, and he should have a huge senior season leading this Tar Heels team. Paige is like a poor man’s Brandon Jennings; a slight lefty point guard who struggles finishing at the rim and shooting anything other than a three-point shot (39.5 percent from deep last year). His slight frame and lack of elite athleticism and quickness give him a perceived lack of upside, and that’ll be something he’ll have to prove when playing against NBA point guards.
But Paige is pretty well-rounded already thanks to his ability to play the passing lanes on the defensive end while also continuing to improve upon his assist-to-turnover ratio. Look for him to try to fix some of his deficiencies on the offensive end this year to become a more complete point guard — if that’s the case, he’ll secure at least a spot in the second round come next June.
3. Theo Pinson 6-6 195 SG/SF Sophomore
Pinson has all the physical tools to make it to the NBA as a versatile swingman able to play both shooting guard and small forward, but has yet to show that talent after an up-and-down freshman season which included many DNPs. The former five-star recruit has the ability to be a defensive stopper, but must see more than 12.5 minutes per game in order to make an impact. In that time, he only averaged 2.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists on only 36.8 percent from the field and 26.9 from three.
With another year at North Carolina, it’s time for Pinson to take a step offensively. With the loss of J.P. Tokoto, minutes will be available, so Pinson should gain more comfort on the floor and be able to produce more efficiently. Pinson could provide a lot of what Tokoto brought to the table with his great athletic ability and upside as a shooter. It’s possible a 3-and-D role could be in store for Pinson as his game develops throughout his time in a Tar Heel uniform. With further development and production, look for Pinson to be a potential first-round pick in the next few years.
2. Brice Johnson 6-9 225 PF Senior
Johnson was one of my top five ACC prospects when taking a look at each conference earlier this summer, and he remains one of the top two NBA prospects on this Tar Heels squad. Johnson is young for a senior, as he turned 21 in June, and he looks like a prototype power forward with great athleticism and nice touch around the basket. He doesn’t really stretch the floor at all, evidenced by his zero three-point attempts in three years, and he maneuvers primarily around the elbows on offense.
As he translates his game to the NBA, it’s important to gain consistency in the mid-range area to supply an offense with as much space as needed, so it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves in his final year at school. Johnson needs to continue to add weight to his frame and stay out of foul trouble (2.9 per game) as he looks to raise his stock and become a fringe first-round pick in the 2016 draft.
1. Justin Jackson 6-8 200 SG/SF Sophomore
Jackson’s NBA upside gives him the slight edge over Johnson at this point, as the slender scoring swingman has great size and touch from the outside. Although Jackson struggled a bit last year as a three-point shooter (30.4 percent), he was efficient in other areas to make up for it (47.7 percent from the field). He has an array of floaters and shoots it well from mid-range to give him a well-rounded offensive skill set at this stage.
Obviously Jackson needs to work on extending his range, and I fully expect him to improve that three-point percentage as a sophomore. At 6-8.5 with a 6-10 wingspan, Jackson has more than enough size for either wing position. He needs to fill out still, and the hope is added weight can help him on defense and slashing to the rim. With a better outside shot and added weight, expect Jackson to be firmly in the first-round range in either of the next two drafts.