ACC Decade in Review, Part 2: The Five Best Players

Posted by Brad Jenkins on January 10th, 2020

As the new new decade gets under way, it’s a good time to reflect on the past 10 years of basketball in the ACC. Recently, the Rush the Court ACC microsite team — Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk), Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24), and Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) — got together to select the five best teams and players that the league has produced from the 2009-10 through 2018-19 seasons. Today we reveal our choices for the top five ACC players of the decade. Of course, selecting an All-Decade team is always a subjective exercise, but it’s now more difficult than ever, considering the current makeup of college basketball. How does one definitively compare one-and-done freshmen phenoms with solid four-year performers? And what about other players that leave school early after stellar sophomore or junior campaigns? No doubt, this was a much easier process when college basketball’s best stuck around campus for most of their careers. Case in point, in the past 10 seasons, only four players were selected first team All-ACC more than once. An average of 11 players earned that distinction in the prior three decades. With the current state of affairs in the sport, we are forced to put more weight on individual season accomplishments – all five of our selections below were consensus first team All-America selections in their last, or only, year of college action. Four won ACC Player of the Year honors in those decorated seasons, and the only one who did not was beaten out in the voting by another member of our top five. Here are our choices for the ACC’s All-Decade team.

MALCOLM BROGDON, VIRGINIA 2012-16 (Player of the Decade)

Malcolm Brogdon was the only player of the decade to be named a 3-time All-ACC First-Teamer. (Getty Images)

The most accomplished four-year performer of the past 10 seasons, Brogdon was the steady force behind Virginia’s rise to prominence. During his last three seasons, Virginia went 45-9 in ACC play with Brogdon being named first team All-ACC each year by the league’s coaches. As a senior, he not only won ACC Player of the Year, but was also selected as the conference’s top defender. National honors poured in as well – along with earning consensus first team All-America honors, he was named National Defensive Player of the Year by the NABC. During his time in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers won two ACC regular season crowns and captured the ACC Tournament title in 2014. The only blemish on Brogdon’s college basketball resume is the lack of a Final Four appearance. Virginia looked like a shoo-in for the 2016 Final Four, but the Cavaliers squandered a late 15-point lead and lost to Syracuse in the Elite Eight, the final game of Brogdon’s outstanding career.

ZION WILLIAMSON, DUKE 2019

Already a YouTube dunking celebrity heading into college, Williamson exploded to national prominence in his first collegiate game – scoring 28 points in Duke’s 35-point romp over Kentucky in the Champions Classic. Zion (has anyone in the sport ever earned single-name status so soon?) went on to post amazing numbers – 22.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 68.0% FG, 5.8% Blk rate, 3.9% Stl rate. But it was more than statistics that made him must-watch TV. It was his unique combination of explosive power, surprising ball skills and an infectious personality. Even his lowest point of the year – a shoe blowout/knee injury in the opening minute of the North Carolina game in Cameron Indoor Stadium — was something we’d never seen before. As a result of that incident, Williamson missed the rest of the regular season before making a triumphant return at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, leading Duke to the championship. For having the best single season of any ACC player in the last 10 years, Zion swept conference and National Player of the Year awards. Like Brogdon, though, Williamson’s Final Four hopes came up one game short as the Blue Devils lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

BRICE JOHNSON, NORTH CAROLINA 2013-16

Brice Johnson made tremendous improvement over his career, growing from a skinny kid as a freshman to becoming the best big man in college basketball in 2016. (Sports Illustrated)

Over the years, the Tar Heels’ coaching staff has earned a reputation for developing big men, and Johnson may be the poster child for that program tradition. When he entered college, Johnson was a 6’9″, 187-pound string-bean who was only able to earn 10 MPG of playing time as a freshman. Each subsequent year saw steady improvement in Johnson’s strength and production. By the time he was a senior, Johnson was a 6’10”, 230-pound menace and the top post player in college basketball as he led North Carolina to a first place ACC regular season finish and ACC Tournament title. A consensus first team All-American, he finished just behind Brogdon in the voting for ACC Player of the Year in 2016. And just like his rival from Virginia, Johnson’s final college game ended in disappointment. After helping the Tar Heels to the National Championship game, Johnson found himself under the basket guarding no one as Kris Jenkins buried the game winning jumper to give Villanova the title.

JAHLIL OKAFOR, DUKE 2015

This skilled center from Chicago had the second-best freshman season in the ACC over the last 10 years (maybe ever) and was the first rookie to be named ACC Player of the Year. Okafor was a rare commodity, indeed –- a freshman center prepared for the physicality of the college game – and posted strong numbers (17.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 66.4% FG) from the start. As a result, he earned consensus first team All-America honors and was runner-up to Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky for most National Player of the Year awards. And even though he didn’t have quite the season that Zion Williamson logged in his only year in college, Okafor can claim something that his fellow ex-Blue Devil cannot – the title of National Champion. With help from senior leader Quin Cook and fellow freshmen Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, Okafor and Duke came from behind to take down Kaminsky’s Badgers in the 2015 title game.

NOLAN SMITH, DUKE 2008-11

Even though Smith played two years in the previous decade, his final two years were of such distinction that he earns the final spot on our All-Decade squad. Early in his career, Smith struggled with consistency, but it all came together for him as an upperclassman. As a junior, he joined Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler in leading Duke to the 2010 National Championship. The following year, Smith was joined in the backcourt by freshman star Kyrie Irving and the Blue Devils were favorites to repeat as champs. But Irving went down with an injury in December forcing Smith to step up his game. He did so in a big way: scoring 20.6 PPG and dishing 5.1 APG; winning ACC Player of the Year and ACC Tournament MVP; and being named a consensus first team All-American. After leading Duke to a #1 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tourney, Smith’s fine career ended with a loss to Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.

High Honorable Mention: Justin Jackson (North Carolina 2015-17), Marvin Bagley (Duke 2018), De’Andre Hunter (Virginia 2018-19), Kyle Singler (Duke 2008-11).

Brad Jenkins (377 Posts)


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