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What’s next for Luke Maye?

Luke Maye is already a Tar Heel legend. What can we expect from his junior season?

Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For the first time since the 2012-2013 season, the Tar Heels seemingly have two huge, gaping voids in the paint. With the departure of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Tony Bradley there is one sole surviving post player from last year’s NCAA champions: Luke Maye.

Most Tar Heel fans know Luke Maye’s story by now. His father, Mark, played quarterback in Chapel Hill and passed his athletic genes to sons (Luke’s brother is a pitcher on the NCAA College World Series champions Florida Gators). Luke was a lightly regarded three-star recruit coming out of high school, where he actually out-performed Kennedy Meeks in the North Carolina high school playoffs. Spurning scholarship offers from other Division-I schools, he accepted North Carolina’s offer to be a preferred walk-on. Fortunately for Luke, J.P. Tokoto’s decision to enter the NBA draft opened up a scholarship his freshman year.

He joined former VCU commit Kenny Williams as part of that unheralded, underrated two person 2015 recruiting class. Most fans believed he would be a solid four-year “program” player. Teams need players like that, and conventional thinking among most fans was hooeful that Maye could reach the production levels of Joel James. Many felt that would be considered a success.

Fast forward two years later. Maye has been part of two ACC regular season champions, one ACC tournament champion, two Final Fours, 2 national championship games, and one NCAA title. Along the way he earned one South Regional Most Outstanding Player award, and arguably hit the most important and/or memorable shot in UNC’s basketball history. That may seem blasphemous in a program with a long history of memorable tournament shots like Joe Quigg’s free throws, Michael Jordan’s baseline jumper, and Rick Fox’s buzzer-beater in Oklahoma City. However, now basking in the glow of a national title, it’s worth debating.

For an offense that has relied upon two post players, inside-out ball movement, crashing the offensive glass, and hunting high-percentage shots around the basket, there are some valid questions surrounding this season’s Heels. On the surface, these are not considered strengths of the 6’8 “power” forward who was arguably the fourth post option and, at times, eighth or ninth man off the bench. Yet, there’s ample evidence that Luke Maye just may be the biggest surprise of UNC’s season.

Per Game Averages/Per 40 Minute Averages

In order to explore the possibilities, I compared various sophomore and junior year stats of five former starting post players for UNC since 2012. The first set of data are the traditional game averages and how those translate to a “Per 40” average (what would a player average if he played for a full 40 minutes). I freely admit the Per 40 averages are a little messy and don’t predict the future, but they are a good measure of the productivity of a player.

Additionally, every post player had different skills and brought different strengths and weaknesses. While there are some similarities, Brice Johnson was not the second coming of John Henson, and Isaiah Hicks was not a reincarnation of James Michael McAdoo. Any argument that denigrates Luke Maye because he’s “not like other UNC post players” is lazy. If anything, it’s Luke Maye’s differences that make him as valuable as he is.

Sophomore Season Game/Per 40 Averages

Player Year MPG PPG RPG APG Points Per 40 Rebounds Per 40 Assists Per 40
Player Year MPG PPG RPG APG Points Per 40 Rebounds Per 40 Assists Per 40
J. Henson 2010-11 26.7 11.7 10.1 0.8 17.5 15.1 1.2
JMM 2012-13 30 14.4 7.3 1.1 19.2 9.7 1.5
B. Johnson 2013-14 19.4 10.3 6.1 0.9 21.2 12.6 1.8
I. Hicks 2014-15 14.8 6.6 3 0.3 17.9 8 0.8
K. Meeks 2014-15 23.3 11.4 7.3 1.1 19.5 12.6 1.8
L. Maye 2016-17 14.1 5.5 3.9 1.2 15.7 11.2 3.3

Junior Season Game/Per 40 Averages

Player Year MPG PPG RPG APG Points Per 40 Rebounds Per 40 Assists Per 40
Player Year MPG PPG RPG APG Points Per 40 Rebounds Per 40 Assists Per 40
J. Henson 2011-12 29.1 13.7 9.9 1.3 18.8 13.7 1.7
JMM 2013-14 30.1 14.2 6.8 1.7 18.9 9 2.3
B. Johnson 2014-15 24.7 12.9 7.8 0.9 20.9 12.6 1.5
I. Hicks 2015-16 18.1 8.9 4.6 0.7 19.8 10.2 1.5
K. Meeks 2015-16 20.6 9.2 5.9 1 17.9 11.5 2
L. Maye 2017-18 ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

There is no way to sugarcoat the hard numbers. In his sophomore year, Luke Maye played less minutes and averaged less points than every other player on the list. He was out rebounded by everyone except Isaiah Hicks. When he takes his spot in the starting line-up this season, he will be the least experienced starting junior post player at UNC in at least the last six years. Newsflash: UNC fans have been supremely spoiled.

However, Maye’s contributions and production were encouraging when you consider the amount of playing time he received. Some of that playing time was due to his own sophomore mistakes and he could look overwhelmed at times. Yet, he also played behind two seniors and a first round NBA draft pick. Minutes were always going to be limited.

Interestingly, extrapolated across 40 minutes, he theoretically performed somewhere between James Michael McAdoo and Kennedy Meeks. He also has shown the propensity to be a better passer than any of the previous post players. Whatever he may lack in scoring, he likely will make up with a few extra assists per game. In other words, when he played, Luke Maye produced.

Another important takeaway? There is no recent road map for what Luke Maye is about to do. John Henson, James Michael McAdoo, and Kennedy Meeks all started as sophomores and juniors. Brice Johnson didn’t start as a sophomore, but still averaged 19 minutes a game. When he cracked the starting lineup the next year, his playing time only increased by five minutes. Room for growth was marginal for all involved. With the exception of a few additional points or rebounds, there just weren’t any major fluctuations.

Isaiah Hicks may be the closest to Luke Maye’s situation, but even this is a difficult argument. Hicks didn’t start his sophomore or junior year, so how much value do we put into his 18 minutes a game as a fair comparison to what Maye will encounter? Assuming Maye plays at both post positions (don’t laugh, it’s going to happen), it’s not unreasonable to expect Maye to play between 24-28 minutes each night. That’s potentially a 100% increase in minutes.

At a minimum, there is a baseline for what productive post players have averaged in their junior years. If Maye’s sophomore numbers are any indication and his playing time meets expectations, Maye should be expected to match and surpass a few of those players.

Advanced Statistical Comparison

Now, let’s gota little deeper. This second set involves more advanced stats: Offensive and defensive rating, +/- efficiency, offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, true shooting percentage, and player efficiency rating (PER). The rebounding percentages are the percentage of available rebounds that a particular player grabbed. So, in John Henson’s sophomore year he grabbed over 25% of all available defensive rebounds when he was on the court. True shooting percentage takes into account ALL field goals, including free throws.

Sophomore Season Advanced Stats

Player Year ORtg DRtg EFF OReb% DReb % TS% PER
Player Year ORtg DRtg EFF OReb% DReb % TS% PER
J. Henson 2010-11 100.9 86.2 14.7 12.7 25.3 50.2 23.6
JMM 2012-13 93.6 95.5 -1.9 8.5 19.7 46.9 16.9
B. Johnson 2013-14 117.1 93.6 23.5 12.6 21.7 57.7 26.7
I. Hicks 2014-15 112.8 103.2 9.6 11.6 10.5 56.4 17.4
K. Meeks 2014-15 116.3 95.4 20.9 12.8 21.2 58.1 24.9
L. Maye 2016-17 115.8 98.2 17.6 12.4 17.4 53.6 18.6

Junior Season Advanced Stats

Player Year ORtg DRtg EFF OReb% DReb % TS% PER
Player Year ORtg DRtg EFF OReb% DReb % TS% PER
J. Henson 2011-12 110.2 86.6 23.6 9 27.1 50.5 24.7
JMM 2013-14 108.4 98.1 10.3 9.5 14.9 48.4 20.3
B. Johnson 2014-15 117.3 94.9 22.4 11 22.7 58.5 25.4
I. Hicks 2015-16 127.3 110.4 16.9 12.5 15.6 65.3 23.8
K. Meeks 2015-16 115.1 96.9 18.2 13.5 18.1 56.7 23.2
L. Maye 2017-18 ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Again, there is a mixed bag on Maye’s results. To be clear, this is encouraging. In their sophomore seasons, Maye outperformed JMM and Isaiah Hicks in almost every statistical category. He even had a better ORtg, +/- efficiency, and true shooting percentage than John Henson’s sophomore season. This all only reinforces the idea that Luke Maye is criminally underrated. Give him the minutes and he will produce.

These stats also do a better job of showing the growth of a player between their sophomore and junior years. Specifically the ORtg, DRtg, and efficiency numbers improved for almost every player. There were modest improvements in true shooting percentages and PER.

Put another way, big men only get better under Roy Williams. Looking at the advanced stats, Hicks and JMM both made significant progress between years 2 and 3. Brice Johnson’s numbers slightly dipped, but he developed into an All-American and first round draft pick just one season later. Only Kennedy Meeks showed any noticeable regression between his sophomore and junior season, but at that point you’re looking for flaws that aren’t there. Meeks’ “regression” had less to do with a decrease in his skills, and more to do with staying healthy and Brice Johnson’s emergence. (I will fight anyone who thinks differently).

What to expect

There is no reason to think that Maye won’t see similar, if not greater, junior year improvements than his predecessors. With fewer experienced big men clogging the lane, he will become the preeminent rebounder on both ends of the floor. His shooting abilities will open up driving and passing lanes, which should boost his ORtg. Already a 40% shooter from three, his true shooting percentage will continue to increase as he improves his footwork and finishing ability around the rim.

If there is one noticeable deficiency in Maye, it would be his defense. Last season, hybrid and stretch forwards often created mismatches. Think Jayson Tatum from Duke. The likelihood of Maye turning into a defensive stalwart this season is low. However, his DRtg of 98.2 is respectable, if not commendable. I was actually surprised it wasn’t worse. His basketball IQ and understanding of body positioning will make him an above average defender in the majority of games this upcoming season. In a surprising twist, it could actually be Maye that creates defensive mismatches against slower power forwards and centers.

Most importantly, with the cast of characters returning on the perimeter, Luke Maye will not have to carry the offense the way previous post players were required. With the offensive firepower, three point prowess, and versatility throughout the lineup, Luke Maye can maintain his status as a third or fourth option while still demanding just enough respect that opponents can’t leave him open.

Finally, as I compiled these numbers, JMM and Isaiah Hicks continued to be the most apt comparisons. Hick’s sophomore numbers were the most similar to Maye’s, so his progression may be the best “floor” to expect from Luke. JMM, despite some limitations, had the versatility to play 15 feet out, draw his defender away from he lane, and face up to the basket. Maye can also do that, but extend to 22 feet. Plus, McAdoo’s experience and supporting casts most similarly mimic the upcoming season.

Imagine a 2013-2014 squad with a sophomore Marcus Paige, senior Reggie Bullock, junior P.J. Hairston, junior James Michael McAdoo, and 300-lb, freshman Kennedy Meeks. At the time, fan’s emotions ranged from optimistic to outright giddy until Bullock declared for the draft and Hairston made poor life choices. Replace that line-up with Joel Berry, Cameron Johnson, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye, and Garrison Brooks. There’s a strong argument that roster is at least as good as, if not better, than that fictitious 2013-2014 squad.

Luke Maye may not be the most traditional post player to don a UNC uniform, but does that matter? College basketball success doesn’t always hinge on future NBA-stardom or conventional thinking. If it did, Michigan’s Fab 5 in ‘93, UNLV in ‘91, and Kentucky ‘15 would all have titles. Last season’s National Player of the Year, Frank Mason, was a second round draft pick. College basketball doesn’t punish unconventional so keep an open mind as this season unfolds.

If you told me two years ago that Luke Maye may would be starting as a junior, I would have raised my eyebrows and rolled my eyes. Had you said he would have statistically performed somewhere between Kennedy Meeks and James Michael McAdoo, most fans would save your tweets and text messages to hold against you in future arguments.

This season, prepare to see both.