December 7, 2017
Prior to the second weekend of the 2017 NCAA tournament, North Carolina’s Luke Maye was a nobody.
Now, people are comparing him to Kevin Love.
When he committed to Roy Williams and the Tar Heels as a preferred walk-on in November 2014, it wasn’t a big story. There was no hat ceremony for the 3-star recruit from Huntersville, North Carolina. (His dad actually broke the news to the Charlotte Observer.) In Bret Strelow’s short piece for the Fayetteville Observer on Maye’s commitment, there was almost more space dedicated to the names of various other recruits North Carolina was targeting.
The chance of maybe getting a PJ Dozier, Skal Labissiere or Stephen Zimmerman was considered just as noteworthy as signing Maye.
Through North Carolina’s first 76 games with Maye on the roster, this made perfect sense. He barely saw the court as a freshman. He started one game as a sophomore, and that was only because Isaiah Hicks was out with an injury. Maye ranked ninth on the team in minutes played last year. He was little more than a change-of-pace option—someone who could stretch the floor and give the opposing team a different look while Hicks or Kennedy Meeks got a respite.
There was nothing to suggest he would become one of the top candidates for college basketball’s 2018 Wooden Award.
And yet, here we are.
The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie—who is unofficially driving the #LukeMayeNPOY bandwagon—had this to say about Maye during the PK80:
“I just think it comes from hard work,” Maye told Bleacher Report after putting up 24 points and a career-high 17 rebounds in a recent win over Davidson. “Just continuing to focus on what I think is important to me and what I’m good at. Doing whatever I can to help my team win. They put me in great spots, and I just continue to bring a workmanlike mentality to every game. Give it all I can and hope for the best.”
Maye’s surge to college superstardom began in the 2017 Sweet 16 against Butler.
Hicks had two fouls by the second media timeout and ended up logging just 17 minutes before fouling out. Williams had no choice but to turn to Maye for a then-career-high 25 minutes, and he answered the call. Within his first four minutes on the floor, Maye had drained a pair of three-pointers and collected three rebounds. He would finish with 16 and 12 for the first double-double of his career.
Two days later, he hit the last-second, game-winning jumper against Kentucky that everyone likely remembers. However, those were just two of the 17 points he scored in the process of propelling North Carolina into the Final Four.
Though Maye did next to nothing during championship weekend against Oregon and Gonzaga, the Tar Heels never would have been there without him.
And it’s almost entirely because of him that North Carolina has its sights set on a third consecutive trip to the Final Four.
“The only guy who wanted Luke Maye as badly as me was [Davidson head coach] Bob McKillop,” said Williams after the win over the Wildcats. “Needless to say, I’m very fortunate that he said yes to us.”
It’s hard to imagine where North Carolina would be right now if he hadn’t.
Both Hicks and Meeks graduated last spring, and Tony Bradley surprisingly bolted for the NBA after just one season. That left this 6’7″ stretch 4 as the only “big man” on the roster with any experience.
Williams signed three freshmen in this year’s class who are 6’9″ or taller, but not one of them was rated as a top-125 recruit. Garrison Brooks has been starting at the 5 thus far; however, there’s no telling whether he, Sterling Manley or Brandon Huffman will have that job a month from now. No one has stood out as an obvious running mate for Maye.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, he has been a one-man wrecking crew, putting up numbers that top what Frank Kaminsky did during his Wooden Award campaign in 2015.
Maye (through 10 games): 19.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.1 BPG, 48.1% 3PT, six double-doubles
Kaminsky (first 10 games): 16.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.1 BPG, 42.4% 3PT, four double-doubles
Maye is five inches shorter than Kaminsky, but it’s an interesting comparison between three-point shooting big men who suddenly exploded onto the national scene as juniors.
Though, if you ask any of Maye’s teammates, this breakout campaign isn’t nearly as surprising as the national media is making it out to be.
“I knew it was only a matter of time,” said Kenny Williams with a huge smile. “We’ve seen him in practice for two years now. Luke can get going *snap* like that. All he needs is one to go in. And then Luke has this thing where if he starts talking to other people and starts talking to himself, that’s when you know, ‘Oh yeah. He’s feeling it. He’s about to go off.'”
“The biggest thing is his motor,” Joel Berry II said of Maye. “He’s always in the right spot. He outruns the (opposing) big men down the court. … It’s a little different than what everybody expects from Carolina, not having two dominant post men when we can have a big guy step out. Just gives everybody a different look to where they can’t just focus on trying to stop us inside.”
It’s because of that motor that Maye had put the finishing touches on his double-double against Davidson with 2:08 remaining…in the first half.
If there’s any coach in the country who should have known what to expect from Maye and how to defend him, it’s the one who aggressively recruited him for years. But McKillop had no answer for him during the game and nothing but praise for him after the game.
“I thought he could have been a star for us, and he’s clearly a star for North Carolina. He’s sensational, and I’m very happy for him,” McKillop said.
As good as Maye has been, Williams thinks he could be even better.
As dozens of reporters huddled around the power forward for his thoughts on how he came to be such a star, Williams emerged from behind a curtain and ambled past the swarm. In a joking-but-serious tone that he has mastered over the years, Williams offered up his unsolicited thoughts to the crowd: “If he’d guard somebody every now and then, he’d be a better player.”
The only thing missing from the jab at his star was a patented “dadgum.” Everyone got a laugh out of it, but it seems Maye took it to heart. Two nights later, he set a career high with four blocks against Tulane.
He also got a double-double.
But that almost goes without saying at this point.
Maye has heard the Kevin Love comparisons, and he gets a sheepish grin when asked about them.
“I mean, he’s an unbelievable player. I just want to play my game and be myself and, hopefully, one day I’ll be close to that realm of basketball.”
Though he’s too modest to admit it, Maye is already in that realm. And if he stays there for another three months, he’ll have a Wooden Award trophy to prove it.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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