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Will UNC benefit from Maye’s draft declaration?

Since 2016, four UNC players have declared for the NBA draft before returning to school. How does UNC benefit?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’ve heard the major UNC basketball news of the week. Yes, Luke Maye is “declaring” for the NBA draft without hiring an agent. He is, as the cool kids say these days, “testing the waters”. If you saw this news and momentarily freaked out, take a deep breath and relax. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, here’s your friendly reminder that declaring for the NBA draft without an agent does not mean you must stay in the NBA draft.

Maye joins an applicant pool consisting of 180 other collegiate early entrants Jonathan Givony of ESPN provides all 181 names in this tweet.

If you don’t want to scan the entire list, just know NCAA stars such as Wofford’s Fletcher Magee and Matt Morgan from the Ivy League powerhouse of Cornell are among the self-selected who declared. Approximately 50 of those players have hired an agent and therefore cannot return to school. The other 130+ entrants will mostly be back on a college court next year.

There are a plethora of reasons to declare. Some players are guaranteed to be first round picks. Other players are just ready to move on from college and/or obtained a degree in three years (like UNC’s own Cameron Johnson did at Pittsburgh). They’d rather take a chance on getting drafted in the second round, developing in the G-League, or making six figures in a foreign country. Sometimes a player exhausted his ability to stay in college due to academic or off-the-court problems and has no other option.

Luke Maye does not fit any of those groups. Instead, he joins a growing number of players who will use the opportunity to potentially meet with NBA teams and get feedback about areas to improve his game. If he’s lucky, Maye will receive an invite to the NBA combine where the competition and evaluation process is more intense and specialized. At the end of the process, he either hires an agent and hopes to be drafted (unlikely), or he returns to school and improves on his break-out junior season (very likely).

Assuming that Maye returns to school, what does this mean for North Carolina? If the past two years of UNC’s early draft entrees are any indication, Maye’s senior season could be even better than last year.

Since the NCAA began allowing players to return to school if they did not hire an agent, five UNC players have taken advantage. Only Tony Bradley remained in the draft after being assured he would be selected in the first round. Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks, and Justin Jackson all spent different lengths of time garnering feedback from teams before coming back to Chapel Hill. Jackson was the only Tar Heel to be invited to the NBA Combine before returning to school after his sophomore season.

Did the process help them prepare for the following season and improve their game? For Meeks, Jackson, and Pinson the following stats indicate yes, absolutely.

Meeks, Jackson, Pinson

Kennedy Meeks MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
Kennedy Meeks MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
2015-16 (JR) 20.6 9.8 5.9 1.0 0.8 56.3 56.3 N/A 70.8 115.1 96.9 18.2 23.2
2016-17 (SR) 24.3 12.5 9.5 1.0 1.0 55.5 56.3 N/A 62.2 123.8 92.3 31.5 28.2
Justin Jackson MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
2015-16 (SO) 28.4 12.7 3.9 2.8 0.6 47.2 54.3 29.8 66.7 120.7 106.0 14.7 18.9
2016-17 (JR) 32.0 18.3 4.7 2.8 0.8 44.3 51.0 37.0 74.8 121.0 102.2 18.8 21.3
Theo Pinson MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
2016-17 (JR) 23.8 6.1 4.6 3.7 0.9 38.1 45.3 23.7 70.2 110.1 99.1 11 14.1
2017-18 (SR) 29.7 10.3 6.5 5.1 1.1 47.3 53.2 22.6 81.8 116 101.5 15.5 18.9

All three players increased their game averages in minutes played, points, rebounds, and steals. Their ORtg, +/- efficiency, and Player Efficiency Rating (PER) also improved. Only Jackson didn’t improve his DRtg, but he did develop into the ACC PoY and a consensus All-American. That’s a fair trade.

Author’s note: Can we talk about, Meeks posting a +31.5 and 28.2 PER for his senior season? He is one of the most underrated and underappreciated Tar Heels of my lifetime. Since 2010, only Tyler Zeller (+35.9, 2012), Reggie Bullock (+32.2, 2013), and Brice Johnson (+37.9, 2016) have had a greater +/-margin in a season. Only Zeller (29.9) and Johnson (33.0) recorded a higher PER in a single season. Those three players were first round draft picks.

There certainly were many factors that influenced these positive results. Some of the improvements can be explained by natural progression (Jackson), staying healthy for an entire season (Pinson), or both (Meeks). Of course, the UNC coaching staff provided the guidance and additional coaching once they returned to school. However, it can’t be ignored that these three players improved after going through different amounts of NBA-level scrutiny.

What about two key players who did not undergo the same kind of post-season evaluation? Joel Berry also declared with Pinson and Bradley, but withdrew his name a mere 48 hours later. Isaiah Hicks also passed on the chance to test the waters, deciding to focus on winning a national championship instead of even peaking behind the NBA-sized door. How did these two perform in their senior seasons?

Berry and Hicks

Joel Berry MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
Joel Berry MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
2016-17 (JR) 30.4 14.7 3.1 3.5 1.4 42.6 47.7 N/A 77.4 120.7 100 20.7 19.1
2017-18 (SR) 33.1 17.1 3.5 3.2 1.2 39.6 45.1 N/A 89.3 114.3 105.6 8.7 18.0
Isaiah Hicks MPG PPG RPG APG STL FG% 2P% 3P% FT% ORtg DRtg (+/-) PER
2015-16 (JR) 18.1 9.2 4.6 0.7 0.5 61.9 61.9 N/A 75.6 127.3 100.4 26.9 23.8
2016-17 (SR) 23.3 11.8 5.5 1.4 0.4 57.6 57.6 N/A 77.9 122.3 98.9 23.4 22.1

Those numbers are not quite as encouraging, though that doesn’t mean the players were disappointments or did not develop. Hicks has done well finding a role with the New York Knicks, and Berry will go down as a Tar Heel legend with a pro career that is still to be determined. As with the noticeable growth of Pinson, Meeks, and Jackson, there are circumstances that impacted each player’s senior season.

Hicks was not a full time starter until his senior year, and often had to fight through his propensity – real and perceived -- to foul opponents. Berry had to serve as the leader, point guard, and primary scoring threat. He did not have a future first round NBA selection to help him in the backcourt like Justin Jackson the year before. A dip in shooting efficiency was understandable.

The most surprising number might be their overall +/- rating (for the purposes of this post, that’s the difference between their ORtg and DRtg). Both Hicks and Berry were less efficient from one year to the next. Their PER also decreased. That was not the case for their teammates. Granted, +/- is a messy stat and five players is a small sample size, but PER is a more universally accepted metric. Regardless of your statistical preference, both bode well for Maye’s senior season.

So relax and breathe a sigh of relief. Theo, Kennedy, and Justin all benefited from this process. If Maye continues that trend and improves on his 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, he will see his name on the short list of ACC and National Player of the Year candidates.

When that happens, UNC will find themselves among the top teams in the nation in March.