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: