Last decade started with North Carolina missing the NCAA tournament for the first and only time during the Roy Williams era (one year after the Tar Heels won the 2009 national title and had to reload) and the decade ended with North Carolina's tournament hopes potentially in jeopardy as the Tar Heels took an 8-5 record into 2020 with their best player, Cole Anthony, sidelined.
But in the years in between, North Carolina won one national championship, played for another and made the second weekend of the NCAA tournament four other times. So the recent collection of talent in Chapel Hill has been considerable.
I went through every North Carolina roster from last decade and picked out the 11 best Tar Heels players, starting with the beginning of the decade (conference play in the 2010 season) to the end (non-conference play this season). These are my picks only.
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I strictly examined a player's college career — not his high school or NBA accomplishments — and only the games played between Jan.1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2019, with a special emphasis on All-America and All-ACC honors, per-game and advanced statistics, and NCAA tournament success. This is more than just raw talent, or else current (but injured) North Carolina freshman Cole Anthony would have a case; this is also about legacy, awards and season-long sustained excellence.
Essentially, I tried to ask the question: At each player's best, how good was he and how good was North Carolina?
Players who didn't play a full season in the decade were evaluated accordingly.
11. Coby White (2018-19)
White was built for Roy Williams' fast-paced offensive philosophy. The Tar Heels played at the fifth-fastest pace nationally on offense last season and they ranked eighth in efficiency, all while White ran the show.
He was named to the All-ACC Second Team and an honorable mention All-America candidate as a freshman after averaging 16.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds, while shooting 35 percent from three, almost 50 percent on twos and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
He exploded for 33 points against Texas in his sixth college game, later tying his season-high against Miami (FL), then breaking it with a 34-point performance against Syracuse. He scored in double figures in 28 of North Carolina's 35 games, including the Tar Heels' last 10. White made at least four 3-pointers in 11 games as a lead guard who could find a teammate for an open basket (24.4 percent assist rate) or score himself.
10. Cameron Johnson (2017-19)
Johnson was the rare intra-conference grad transfer who had two years of eligibility remaining at his second school and he made the most of them. He developed into a 2019 First Team All-ACC selection last season after averaging a team-high 16.9 points per game while posting the 15th-best offensive rating nationally (129.0).
He was an absolute sharpshooter as a fifth-year senior, making 45.7 percent of his 3s on 5.8 attempts per game, while shooting 55 percent inside the arc and 81 percent from the free-throw line.
The 6-8 forward who transferred from Pitt put up those numbers despite having the fourth-highest usage rate on North Carolina last season. He also posted the best rebounding (5.8 rpg), assist (2.4 apg) and steal (1.2 spg) numbers of his career.
9. John Henson (2009-12)
While Henson's offense left more to be desired, he was an elite rim protector and a great rebounder, making him an integral piece on a pair of North Carolina teams that made the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons. He averaged a double-double as a sophomore with 11.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
He was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 and 2012, when he averaged 3.2 and 2.9 blocks per game, respectively. Henson's 2011 block rate, 11.6 percent, ranked 12th nationally, which meant that he blocked roughly one out of every eight to nine 2-point shots the opponent attempted.
Henson was a Second Team All-ACC selection as a sophomore and a First Team selection as a junior.
While Henson was never a super efficient scorer, his scoring average increased each season he was a Tar Heel — 5.7 points per game to 11.7 to 13.7. He shot at least 50 percent on twos every season.
8. Luke Maye (2015-19)
Maye's four years at North Carolina is one of the biggest examples of multi-year growth and development in recent college basketball history. He averaged just 1.2 points and 1.7 rebounds in 5.4 minutes per game as a freshman on the Tar Heels' national runner-up team in 2016.
As a sophomore, his biggest singular contribution was his game-winner against Kentucky in the Elite Eight as the Tar Heels went on to win the national championship (Maye scored 50 points and had 25 rebounds in the first four games of North Carolina's title run but his playing time and stats went down in the Final Four).
After the Tar Heels lost four of their top five scorers from their title team, it became Maye and Joel Berry II's team.
Maye went from averaging 5.5 points per game as a sophomore to 16.9 as a junior (just 0.2 behind Berry), in addition to a team-high 10.1 rebounds per game, which propelled him to First Team All-ACC and Third Team All-American honors.
He was a sharpshooter at 6-8, making 43 percent of his three 3-point attempts per game, while taking care of the ball (13.3 percent turnover rate), protecting the rim (one block per game), ranking among the top 100 defensive rebounders in the country and being an efficient, high-usage scorer.
Maye's productivity and efficiency dipped as a senior but the versatility and contributions of his junior season shouldn't be forgotten.
7. Kendall Marshall (2010-12)
Marshall won the Bob Cousy Award as a sophomore, which is given to the best point guard in the country, and he's responsible for one of the great "What if?" questions of the decade. Marshall suffered a season-ending wrist injury in North Carolina's second round win over Creighton in the NCAA tournament and his Tar Heels lost two games later to Kansas in the Elite Eight. Freshman Stillman White started in place of Marshall, scoring just four points in 28 minutes against the Jayhawks.
Kansas went on to finish as the national runner-up.
Could the 2012 NCAA tournament have been different if the best point guard in the country was healthy?
You can certainly make the case it would have. He was playing the best basketball of his college career at the time of his injury, having scored in double figures in his last six games (he had never scored in double figures in more than two consecutive games), including five double-doubles, and he had made at least one three in each game.
Marshall was a Third Team All-American in 2012, when he averaged 8.1 points, 9.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 35 percent from three and 52 percent on twos. He was an efficient scorer (113.0 offensive rating) but he took a shot on just 11.7 percent of possessions when he was on the floor.
He did his real damage as a facilitator. Marshall's 45.1 percent assist rate was third nationally, which means that he assisted on almost half of North Carolina's baskets when he was on the floor.
As a freshman, Marshall was Third Team All-ACC and a member of the All-ACC Freshman Team.
6. Marcus Paige (2012-16)
If Kris Jenkins' game-winning 3-pointer for Villanova clanks off the rim instead of going in, Marcus Paige's game-tying, running, floating, hanging 3-pointer just seconds earlier is instead remembered as one of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history.
Now, it'll slowly get forgotten over time to most college basketball fans outside of the state of North Carolina.
Paige was a First Team All-ACC selection and Third Team/Honorable Mention All-American as a sophomore in 2014, when he averaged a team-high 17.5 points, 4.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. What's arguably most impressive about his scoring average is that Paige had the fourth-highest usage rate on the team, behind James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks that season.
Paige led the Tar Heels in scoring again as a junior, when he averaged 14.1 points per game and earned Third Team All-ACC honors, and he was tied for the second-highest scoring average (13.4 ppg) as a senior on North Carolina's national runner-up team.
5. Joel Berry II (2014-18)
Berry was the second-leading scorer on North Carolina's national championship and national runner-up teams, plus the Tar Heels' leading scorer as a senior, so he was the starting point guard on the three most efficient Tar Heel offenses (and arguably the two best UNC teams) of the decade. He was named the Most Outstanding Player in the 2017 Final Four.
As a senior, Berry was a First Team All-ACC selection and Third Team/Honorable Mention All-American, improving upon his Second Team All-ACC campaign in 2017.
He started 112 of a possible 114 games from the start of his sophomore year, averaging 13.4 points per game, then 14.7 as a junior and 17.1 as a senior. During his four years in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels' offense ranked 11th, first, ninth and sixth, respectively, in terms of efficiency.
As a sophomore, Berry's 122.2 offensive rating ranked 77th nationally, and at his best, he was a 38 percent 3-point shooter on a high-volume of attempts, almost a 90 percent free throw shooter and a player who rarely turned the ball over or committed fouls.
4. Harrison Barnes (2010-12)
Barnes led North Carolina in scoring as a sophomore, when he averaged 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. The 6-8 forward was an immediate-impact freshman who averaged 15.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2011, then he became a more efficient scorer in his second season with the Tar Heels.
In his first season in Chapel Hill, Barnes was named the ACC Rookie of the Year, a member of the All-ACC Freshman Team and an honorable mention All-American. His honors got bigger and better as a sophomore, when he was an All-ACC First Team selection and a Second/Third Team All-American, depending on the media outlet.
3. Tyler Zeller (2008-12)
Zeller played on the first three North Carolina teams of last decade and his last, the 2011-12 Tar Heels, went 32-6 with two of those losses coming by one point and another coming by three points. The 7-footer was the ACC Player of the Year and a consensus Second Team All-American as a senior, when he averaged 16.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 55 percent from the field. He finished seventh in kenpom.com's player-of-the-year rankings.
North Carolina finished atop the ACC regular season standings, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and made the Elite Eight. On a team that featured six other future NBA players, Zeller was the most efficient scorer of them all with a 121.0 offensive rating that ranked 65th nationally.
He was a great rebounder — 34th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (14.1 percent), 172nd defensively (20.2 percent) — in addition to being able to protect the rim (he blocked 5.3 percent of opponent's 2-point attempts when he was on the floor) and getting to the foul line frequently (he attempted 224 free throws compared to 398 field-goal attempts as a senior).
2. Brice Johnson (2013-16)
Johnson was North Carolina's best player as a senior, when the Tar Heels went 33-7, finishing atop the ACC regular season standings, winning the ACC Tournament and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, ultimately losing in the national championship to Villanova on Kris Jenkins' title-winning 3-pointer.
Johnson was nearly a consensus First Team All-American in 2016, when he averaged 17.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Even though he didn't attempt a single three in his four-year career, advanced metrics loved the 6-9 forward. He was named the national player of the year by kenpom.com and according to the site, Johnson had the 23rd-best offensive rating in the country (126.8), the 13th-best defensive rebound percentage (28.5 percent) and a 5.5 percent block rate. He was the primary scoring option on the most efficient offense in the country that season.
He was named to the All-ACC First Team as a senior after making the Third Team as a junior.
Johnson had 23 double-doubles in 40 games as a senior, including 12 in 18 ACC regular season games. A 39-point, 23-rebound performance on 14-of-16 shooting against Florida State is on the short list of the most impressive single-game performances by a North Carolina players last decade. He averaged 19 points and 9.3 rebounds in North Carolina's six NCAA Tournament games in 2016.
1. Justin Jackson (2014-17)
Jackson was the best player on a national title-winning team. There are only 10 players who can make such a claim each decade, assuming no one doubles up, and Jackson is one of them for the 2010s. As a junior, he was named the ACC Player of the Year and nearly a consensus First Team All-American after averaging 18.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
He was a similar height as North Carolina's leading scorer from the previous season, Brice Johnson, but he had a much different game. The 6-8 Jackson attempted a team-high 7.1 3-pointers per game and he made 37 percent of them on the season, making him a valuable wing in today's game, especially when playing alongside old-school bigs in Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks on the Tar Heels' championship team in 2017.
Jackson helped North Carolina finish atop the ACC standings and earn a No. 1 seed, allowing the Tar Heels to play on the last day of the college basketball season and do something the 2016 Tar Heels fell just short of accomplishing — cut down the nets. He was the team's primary scorer as he had a team-high 28.4 shot percentage (five percent higher than any of his teammates), he rarely turned the ball over (12.2 percent turnover rate) or fouled (1.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes) and his 119.5 offensive rating ranked in the top 140 nationally.
In his North Carolina career, Jackson started 114 of 118 games, while averaging in double figures and at least two assists per game from the small forward position. He averaged 19.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game during North Carolina's six NCAA tournament games in 2017.
Also considered: James Michael McAdoo, Kennedy Meeks, Theo Pinson, P.J. Hairston