UNC Basketball: Luke Maye demolishing expectations, silencing doubters

Junior forward continues to silence naysayers with solid play, leadership

Luke Maye was part of an unheralded two-man recruiting class in 2015 that resulted from the negativity and uncertainty surrounding the NCAA’s investigation into the University of North Carolina.

It was that situation, and not some mysterious change of heart, that caused five-star prospect Brandon Ingram to flip his decision from North Carolina to Duke that year. Ingram, a native of Kinston, North Carolina who had been favored to commit to the Tar Heels, attributed the NCAA investigation into “paper classes” to why he ended up in Durham rather than Chapel Hill.

Maye and Kenny Williams, the second member of the Tar Heels’ 2015 freshman class, were both four-star prospects according to the most favorable of reviews from recruiting outlets. Others were not so kind, ranking nearly 200 players ahead of the athletic but undersized power forward.

And of course, there were fans who lacked optimism in the Tar Heels’ recruiting class, accustomed to seeing the program bring in five-star talent each and every year.

Both players would have slow starts to their respective careers. Maye found it difficult to earn playing time behind the likes of front court incumbents Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. Williams struggled to find his shot in year one, and lost more than a third of his sophomore season to injury.

While Williams was sidelined with his season-ending knee injury, though, Maye began to come into his own. His minutes increased as his play became more consistent. Then he hit one of the biggest shots in North Carolina history when he drilled a game-winning jumper against Kentucky in the Elite 8.

MEMPHIS, TN – MARCH 26: Luke Maye

Still, Maye had doubters.

After posting a 26-point, 10-rebound game against Northern Iowa in Friday night’s season opener, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior forward may have alleviated some of those concerns.

Not only did Maye lead all scorers and rebounders, he hit 11-of-16 shots from the floor, including 2-of-3 from three-point range and both free throw attempts. He was all over the court, clearly asserting himself as the Tar Heels’ No. 1 scoring option.

There’s no telling if that will continue once preseason All-American Joel Berry II returns from injury, or once Roy Williams inserts sharpshooter Cameron Johnson into the lineup. But Maye lacked no confidence in what was clearly his best game to date.

During Williams’ post game press conference, Raleigh News and Observer’s Andrew Carter asked the Hall-of-Fame head coach if he had ever envisioned a time when Maye would perform so well and accumulate the kind of stats he did on Friday night.

“The answer is yes and no,” Williams said after North Carolina’s 86-69 victory Friday night. “I wouldn’t recruit players if I didn’t think they could be really good. I’m not recruiting someone just because his dad was a nice guy when I was an assistant coach or anything. I really think he has a chance to be a good player. He was in our camp for a few years and I kept saying to his dad, ‘Don’t sell yourself short, he’s going to have a chance.’ I really wanted him, told him I really wanted him, and told him he would surprise people and be very good.”

“What you don’t know is how much they want it,” Williams said. “I knew that Tyler Hansbrough wanted to be a great player and was going to work, and you hope that with everybody, but I think Luke has fulfilled my expectation for how badly he wants to be a good player, and then some. His desire is off the charts. I’ve never recruited a guy thinking he wasn’t going to be very good. Big guys who can shoot the ball give you another thing to think about.”

Only time will tell how things will go for Maye over the next two years, or if his performance against Northern Iowa will be his best of the season.

He has, however, exceeded any and all expectations that were placed upon him prior to his arrival in Chapel Hill some two-plus years ago. Whether that’s the fault of those who sorely underestimated him, or a credit to his hard work and dedication in becoming a better basketball player, we’ll likely never know.

What we can deduce, though, is that he’s erased nearly all of the doubt, and that North Carolina fans are glad that he’s wearing their team’s jersey.