After a rough 2009-10 season, during which North Carolina won only five ACC games, the Tar Heels were seemingly primed for a rebound in 2010-11. Roy Williams was set to add the highly touted freshman trio of Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, and Kendall Marshall to a squad that had a potentially strong and deep frontcourt. But on May 6, 2010 sophomore twins David and Travis Wear announced that they would transfer. That eliminated the entirety of UNC’s post depth.
Enter Justin Knox.
The 6-9 big man from Alabama joined the Tar Heels as their first-ever graduate transfer and provided that much needed frontcourt depth.
Today Justin, his wife, Rachel, and kids, Carter and Aleaha, call Birmingham, Ala. home but that is not where Justin works.
“This season will be my sixth playing basketball overseas,” he said. “I’ve played in Belarus, Turkey (twice), Holland, Malaysia, Puerto Rico, and currently Italy.”
While playing basketball for a living is a dream come true, it hasn’t come easy for Knox.
“It has been a good experience to play the game I love and be able to travel to different countries,” he said. “The experience has been good, but it comes with hard work. The pressure of performing well week in and week out is always there because teams won’t hesitate to replace you. As a professional player you have to respect the process of the work you put in because you only receive accomplishments from the work that’s put in.”
Playing overseas also brings a whole new dimension of everyday obstacles.
“The training is of course difficult, but along with that there is the language barrier in the different countries,” Knox said. “The difference in food options is completely different from home. My rookie season in Belarus I lost 20 pounds in the first week and a half. The food portions are much smaller than in America.
“At times there is also real life danger in some countries such as Turkey. I played in Turkey for the 2015-16 season and there were at least eight bombings in the country that year. Two of the bombings were in the city I was in. Playing overseas has taught me to always keep my guard up on the court and off.”
Knox stands out in the minds of UNC fans because of the graduate transfer process that enabled his senior season in Chapel Hill. Knox was an outstanding student at Alabama, earning his degree in three years and was the 2009 SEC Men’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. This placed him in position to take advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer process.
“After I made the decision to transfer I was informed by a family member that I would be able to play immediately if I graduated early,” Knox said. “Transfer or not, I would have graduated in three or three and a half years. Each summer since before the beginning of my freshman fall semester I enrolled in summer classes. I always looked at the situation as a no-brainer, I might as well take advantage of my scholarship and get as much done as soon as possible. The 2010 summer I took five classes in order to graduate in August.”
The process of picking a school to attend for his graduate year was almost like starting the high school recruiting process all over for Knox. His recruitment came with restrictions as part of Alabama’s transfer release – excluding SEC programs, among others – and so Knox visited South Alabama, Southern Mississippi, Georgia Tech, and UNC.
So what ended up leading Knox to Chapel Hill?
“Coach (Williams) talked to me about how they had a need for an experienced big man to come in and take the place of the Wear twins transferring.
“I chose to attend UNC because of the opportunity to be a part of an enriched American basketball history. It was also a good opportunity for me to grow as a player and to learn from the best coach I’ve ever played for."
Knox joined a Tar Heel team ready to put the previous year behind it and climb back onto the national stage.
“Coming in the atmosphere of the team didn’t resemble a team that just finished a bad season,” Knox recalled. “Every day we were in the gym guys were focused on getting better. We had a lot of great pickup games during the summer that I think played a factor in our growth that season.”
Knox contributed about 14 minutes a game of interior depth behind Tyler Zeller and John Henson on a team that won 29 games and the ACC regular season title, reaching the Elite Eight.
He remembered two former Tar Heel greats – Rasheed Wallace and Sean May – helping to instill an edge with the current team’s frontcourt during special practice appearances: “They didn’t hold anything back.”
He remembered his first taste of the UNC-Duke rivalry: “What surprised me the most about playing in Cameron Indoor was how underwhelming the noise level was during the game. I was expecting ear deafening noise levels, but that just wasn’t so.”
And he couldn’t forget his favorite game of the season: “Beating Duke at home to win the regular season championship. That was the first time for me experiencing fans rush the court and cutting down the net.”
Knox has made it back to the UNC campus during the summer, including as recently as 2015. He said he enjoys seeing everyone, and playing pickup games. He only played in Chapel Hill for one year, but that single season was sufficient to make him a lifelong member of the Carolina Basketball family. And the experience enabled the professional career that continues today.
“Transferring from a basketball program that had not made a postseason tournament since before I was there, coming into the UNC program and witnessing the professionalism and experiencing the success really rekindled my love for the game of basketball,” he said.
Photo courtesy Justin Knox's Fan Pagenull