North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32) defends Bucknell’s Stephen Brown (2) during the second half on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Maye lead the Tar Heels with 20 points in their 93-81 victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com
North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32) defends Bucknell’s Stephen Brown (2) during the second half on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Maye lead the Tar Heels with 20 points in their 93-81 victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

For the moment, North Carolina’s most important player is Luke Maye

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

November 16, 2017 04:28 PM

CHAPEL HILL

This isn’t Joel Berry’s team yet, not with his right hand strapped and bandaged and padded. He may have been on the court a game or so earlier than expected, but he’s a long way from being back.

For the moment, North Carolina revolves around Luke Maye, its leading scorer by a wide margin through two games and, until Berry returns to full strength, the Tar Heels’ most pivotal player.

Even on a night when Theo Pinson tried to assert himself offensively as much as possible, the Tar Heels still looked to Maye for every big basket and crucial rebound. And they needed all of his 20 points Wednesday, including three 3-pointers, to fend off a veteran Bucknell team that returned all five starters and was within four points with as few as six minutes to go before falling 93-81.

It wasn’t because Bucknell wasn’t prepared. After watching North Carolina’s game against Northern Iowa, Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said Maye looked like a different player from last year. But there was only so much the Bison could do. Maye is that much better, and the real surprise probably isn’t that he’s taken this leap – anyone could see it coming during last year’s NCAA tournament – but how comfortable he has looked doing it.

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“You get comfortable with great confidence and you get confidence because you’re accomplishing things and working hard,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I knew he was going to do that last part.”

There’s so much about this that’s different from years past, from Maye’s role in the offense to the way his mere presence tweaks the way the Tar Heels play. Instead of the two big men that Williams typically relies upon, Maye is a perimeter presence and 3-point threat, not a back-to-the-basket behemoth. That’s a very different look for North Carolina, entirely because of his skill set.

“We usually have two dominant post men and now you have Luke, who basically changed what we’re doing,” Berry said. “You don’t see Luke posting up much. He’s out on the perimeter.”

Bucknell’s inability to adequately guard Maye opened up space for freshman big men Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley, who combined for 26 points and 16 rebounds. (After two games, Brooks is not surprisingly the first option among the freshman, but Manley has emerged as the second.)

But it was Maye who hurt Bucknell the most. He did the same in the opener against Northern Iowa, with Berry sitting out. Through two games, Maye is averaging 23.0 points and 9.5 rebounds, ridiculous numbers for a player who averaged 3.5 points over his first two seasons. Of his 278 career points, 17 percent have come in the past week.

“I just go out there and play my game and take my shots,” Maye said. “Coach gives me all the confidence in the world and wants me to be the player that I am. I just step in to shots, and if I’m open, I’m going to shoot it.”

Maye has gone from largely overlooked recruit to role player to the most important player on an elite team, which is a transition as rare as it is improbable. And yet Maye has done it with ease, playing with a command on the court that makes it look like he expected this all along. His teammates did.

“Everybody else is surprised,” Pinson said. “Nobody on this team is surprised. Luke’s been killing all summer. He’s been killing since he got here, honestly. You just got Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson – we expect this from him, because he’s gone against those great players for two years.”

This won’t last, at least not in its current form. Maye will still be expected to score – his inside-outside scoring ability is even more important with Cameron Johnson out 4-6 weeks after knee surgery Wednesday – but eventually the offense is going to run through Berry’s hands instead.

One of those hands may remain damaged – he made his first shot, a 3-pointer, then missed the next 10 – but it’s only a matter of time until Berry ready. Until then, the Tar Heels appear as comfortable making Maye their go-to player as he appears to be.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock