Tobacco Road Sleepers

The Tobacco Road has long been a basketball hotbed, producing heated college rivalries and churning out NBA players. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest NBA player ever, hails from Wilmington, NC and attended UNC. Most fans have heard the story of Jordan being cut from his high school varsity team when he was a sophomore. Because of that fact, some fans incorrectly assume that Jordan was a “sleeper” recruit coming out of high school. However, the truth is that by the time Jordan graduated high school, he was known by every college coach and was very highly regarded, ranked as highly as #2 in the nation (behind only Patrick Ewing) by recruiting services.

There have been some real sleepers from Tobacco Road over the years. Players who enter college without fanfare or high national ranking, but work hard enough to become stars and later earn a living playing basketball at the highest level. Who are the best examples of that phenomenon from the North Carolina ACC schools, the true Tobacco Road Sleepers?

#1 – Tim Duncan

This one is easy, as Tim Duncan could be the best example of a sleeper in basketball history. Duncan grew up in the Virgin Islands and trained to become an elite swimmer, before a hurricane destroyed his neighborhood swimming pool. Duncan, then a teenager, turned to basketball and hit a growth spurt. He wasn’t on the radar of any recruiting “gurus” or rating services, and it was only by fluke that Wake Forest coach Dave Odom got tipped off to the young seven footer from the islands. Not only was Duncan unranked in the top 100 recruit lists, he wasn’t ranked period, on any top-whatever lists. With no other ACC offers, on paper he looked like a typical “project” who would never turn into a productive player. Only sixteen when he matriculated at Wake, he was slated to redshirt his freshman year. That changed when more highly regarded freshman Makhtar N’Diaye was declared ineligible just before the season started, forcing Duncan into action as a freshman.

Fast forward to the 1997 NBA draft, when the San Antonio Spurs selected Duncan with the first overall pick. He had an immediate impact, making the All-NBA 1st Team his rookie season. In his second season Duncan won an NBA title and the Finals MVP award. He’s piled up many more accolades, with three NBA Finals MVPs (only Jordan has more), nine First Team All-NBA selections and 14 All-Star appearances (joining Bob Cousy as the only players to start in 12 consecutive All-Star games). Nobody could have predicted in 1993 that the unassuming and unheralded 16-year-old freshman would turn into the greatest power forward to play the game.

#2 – Tom Gugliotta

By 1988, Jim Valvano had built a powerhouse at NC State. After winning the NCAA title in dramatic fashion in 1983, Jimmy V parlayed the success into recruiting gold, regularly landing top recruits in Raleigh. Tom Gugliotta didn’t fit that mold. In fact, Valvano probably wouldn’t have even known about Gugliotta but for the high school senior’s father calling up the NC State coach on the phone. Frank Gugliotta promised his old friend Valvano that his kid was worth taking a chance on. Jimmy V had an extra scholarship at the time, so he gambled the roster spot on a 6′ 6″ player other top programs didn’t care to recruit.

As a freshman, Gugliotta’s production matched his reputation, as he averaged about two points per game and didn’t make much of an impression. But every year he improved, until he became one of the top players in college basketball as a 6′ 10″ senior, averaging 22 points and nearly ten rebounds per game. Selected 6th overall in the 1992 NBA draft by the Washington Bullets, Googs enjoyed a 13 NBA career with seven different teams. With career averages of 13 points and 7 rebounds per game, he had a few peak years when he routinely put up 20/10 games and was one of the most versatile forwards in the league.

#3 – Hubert Davis

When Hubert Davis came to Chapel Hill as a UNC freshman, most basketball fans knew him as the nephew of former Tar Heel All-American Walter “Sweet D” Davis. By UNC standards, Hubert wasn’t a very highly regarded recruit. Most observers figured he’d never have gotten a scholarship offer from UNC but for Dean Smith’s connection to Hubert’s uncle. After all, Coach Smith had a roster stocked with high school All-Americans, so he could afford to use a scholarship on a player who wouldn’t be a star, but would be a high character team player to push the starters in practice.

As a freshman, Davis got little playing time and was known around campus as a really nice guy, the nephew of Walter Davis whose name rhymed with Q-bert. But if the fans had already decided Davis would never be a big time player, Hubert had other ideas. He steadily improved, combining a pure shooting stroke (reminiscent of his uncle’s) with solid decision-making, endearing himself to the coaching staff and earning more minutes each season. As a senior, Davis became one of the very few players to average over 20 points per game for a season under Dean Smith. The New York Knicks selected Davis with the 20th pick of the 1992 NBA draft, and Davis stayed in the league for a solid thirteen year career, averaging over eight points per game for six different teams.

So we have one example each from the Big Four teams of Wake Forest, NC State and UNC, but none from Duke. Are we leaving anybody off the list? If so, leave a comment below:



  1. Everett Case built the first ACC powerhouse at State utilizing for the most part recruits from Indiana. In 1951 he allowed a boy from Jonesville to try out for a scholarship but decided the burly 6-6 high school senior couldn’t match his standards. All Dickie Hemric did by the time he graduated from Wake Forest in 1955 was to own NCAA records for most career points (2,587), most career free throw attempts (1,359), most career free throws made (905) and most free throws made in a season (302). In addition he generally made life miserable for the Wolfpack his entire career. Not bad for an unknown from a little NC town.

    • That’s a great call, I hadn’t even considered Hemric. He graduated Wake Forest as the most prolific scorer in college basketball history, as you mentioned. He was the 12th overall pick in the NBA draft and won an NBA title with the Celtics in 1957.

      Had Everett Case actually landed Hemric at NC State, he would have played alongside the equally legendary Ronnie Shavlik on the front line. By 1950s standards, that would’ve been like putting Chamberlain and Russell on the same team, or to use an ACC example, Ralph Sampson and James Worthy. Hemric still holds the all-time ACC single game rebounding record with 36, with Shavlik in second place with 35. Those two together would’ve been a beastly front line.

  2. Great article. I love the fact that it mentions that TD was thought to be a “project” to play behind Makhtar. Classic — lol. The first game that I saw TD play, he looked like he was going to be a monster. I agree with the article, but one could almost make a case for Gugs being #1 because he carried an absolutely terribly God-awful State team completely on his back. I will never forget State that year book-ending an 11 game losing streak with two wins over #1 and #3 UNC teams where Gugs hung 36 on them in Raleigh and 38 in the Dean Dome a month later. Also classic.

    • Gugliotta definitely became a Tar Heel killer. And I agree, you could see signs of Duncan’s future dominance early in his career at Wake, while both Gugliotta and Davis had more pedestrian beginnings before developing into stars as upperclassmen.

      • I was just researching for any Duke “sleepers” and the only choices that would remotely qualify would probably be either Tate Armstrong who was a great player some really bad Duke teams but ended up playing for the Dean Smith coached ’76 Gold Medal Olympic team and also had the dubious distinction of being on the court as UNC scored 8 points in 17 seconds to force overtime in 1974. Lefty Driesell may be another and we all know what he went on to do, but I could not find much about his playing career at Duke. It seems that almost all of the Duke players that went on to do great things (even those preceding Coach K) were highly regarded and recruited players coming on to campus.

        • Yes i had a difficult time too, trying to find Duke examples. I thought maybe Gminski but turns out he was a pretty big time recruit at the time. Tate Armstrong might be the best choice. Unheralded as a recruit out of Texas, he turned into a great ACC player and first round NBA pick by the Bulls. But he never cut it in the pros, and was out of the league after a couple of seasons.