By now no one can be surprised by what Luke Maye is doing, because he has done it nearly all of North Carolina’s first five games. In three of them he has finished in double figures in both points and rebounds, as he did on Friday during the Tar Heels’ 87-68 victory against Arkansas in the second round of the PK80.
In four of UNC’s first five games, Maye, the junior forward who was once prepared to arrive at UNC without a scholarship, as an invited walk-on, has scored at least 20 points. He did that on Friday, too, and finished with 28 – more than he’d ever scored in a college game – and 16 rebounds.
While Maye and UNC coach Roy Williams joined reporters in an interview room after their victory on Friday, UNC’s basketball spokesperson informed the assembled media that Maye had established personal records in points, rebounds and assists (five). Williams, sitting between Maye and Joel Berry, the senior point guard, didn’t miss a beat.
“And turnovers,” he said, referring to Maye’s five turnovers, which were also the most he’d ever had.
Moments later, Williams grew serious.
“No,” he said. “I thought it was sensational for Luke.”
Those kinds of adjectives have become the norm to describe Maye’s early-season play. The longer it continues, the more routine it seems – and the more it becomes clear that not only is Maye in the midst of a rare kind of emergence, but he’s also confounding the opposing defenses that attempt to set out to stop him.
Entering the season, Maye would have already been an important part of any team’s scouting report. The dramatic, game-winning shot he made against Kentucky last March, after all, was perhaps the most memorable moment of the NCAA tournament. Since the start of this season, though, Maye’s role has only grown, as has his success – and opposing defenses still appear lost in their attempts to slow him.
Maye on Friday credited some of that to the Tar Heels’ balance. Kenny Williams, the junior guard, scored 19 points against Arkansas, and Berry 13. Theo Pinson finished with nine points and challenged the defense, as he usually does, with his ability to penetrate and create for his teammates.
“We have so many guys that can score – Theo, Kenny, Joel,” Maye said. “They all are capable of hitting shots, getting to the basket. (It’s) really tough to guard all four us at the same time.”
It is proving especially difficult to guard Maye at all. At 6-8 and 240 pounds, he is bigger than a traditional small forward and smaller than a traditional power forward. And yet his game is a combination of both.
Against the larger players who attempt to defend Maye, he has an advantage in quickness. Against smaller players, he has an advantage in size and strength. Both on in the interior and on the perimeter, Maye has been a force, ones that other coaches haven’t figured out how to neutralize.
“They’re not giving him carte blanche,” said Williams, who bristled at the thought that defenses are simply playing poorly against Maye. “... You think those other coaches are dumb? He’s got a double-double every game.”
Williams can relate to the plight of opposing coaches who are left to attempt to reckon with Maye. Their challenge is the same one Williams has experienced at several points in recent seasons, as basketball has become more of a positionless game.
Williams remains committed to a traditional philosophy and approach, one predicated on two post players, and an offense that works through them on the inside. This season, though, one of those post players is Maye, who is as comfortable outside of the paint as he is inside of it.
“What has given us trouble, the last three or four years?” Williams asked, before quickly answering his own question. “(It’s) guarding an under-sized four man.”
Now the Tar Heels have one of their own. Maye’s emergence has given UNC “a different look,” as Berry, the point guard, described it after the victory against Arkansas on Friday. During his first three seasons, Berry grew accustomed to playing in Williams’ traditional offense, one built around two traditional players in the post.
Two years ago, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks made for a formidable duo on the inside. Last season, it was Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
“We usually have two guys who are on the block, and now you have somebody who is setting a pick, and he’s not rolling to the basket – he can step out and hit the 3,” Berry said. “And then, Luke is a smart player. I don’t think a lot of people realize when Luke gets the ball down low, his shot is just so convincing to where he gets people off their feet, and then he goes up to the basket.”
Pinson, another senior, has insisted that “we knew Luke was going to do this for a long time.” Pinson saw the warning signs during practices years ago, when Maye held his own against the likes of Johnson and Meeks and Hicks. Even so, Maye continues to surpass even the grandest of expectations.
He is averaging 21.2 points and 10.8 rebounds after five games. And according to ESPN’s stats and information department, Maye is the first UNC player since Antawn Jamison in 1996 to score at least 100 points and secure at least 50 rebounds in UNC’s first five games.
In the process, Maye has changed UNC’s playing style, and made the Tar Heels more difficult to defend. Williams on Friday considered a question about his degree of surprise at Maye’s start. As he has said at other points early this season, Williams said again that he isn’t surprised at all.
“Last year in the middle of the season, I told my staff, I said guys, ‘You don’t understand – I like Luke better than all of y’all put together,’ ” Williams said. “And none of them disliked him. But I just think that he’s a big-time player.”
He has proven that, again and again, during the first two weeks of his junior season.