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UNC Basketball: Kerwin Comes Alive!

One peculiar development of the season has been the regression of Kerwin Walton. Has he turned a significant corner just in time for ACC play?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Purdue Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, a freshman Kerwin Walton found himself elevated to the starting line-up because he could do something that nobody else could do: consistently hit a three. This year, with Hubert Davis’ emphasis on spacing and shooting, UNC has no shortage of players who can hit from distance. To wit: in 12 games this season, Carolina is hitting 39.2% of its 3-point shots. Last year they shot 31.8%, and that was with Walton dragging the team percentage up with his 42% individual clip.

This year, that single shooting talent is not enough to keep Kerwin Walton on the floor, let alone in the starting line-up. Caleb Love and RJ Davis have substantially improved their shooting percentage (+14.5% for Love +11.2% for Davis--with the caveat that this year’s shooting percentage is based on a smaller sample size). Adding perimeter threats in Brady Manek (35.7%) and Dawson Garcia (45.8%) to the rotation is not helping, either.

This change in status on the floor and in the program can be a lot to digest in a short period of time. It wasn’t so long ago that Walton was winning the team’s 3-point shooting contest at Late Night with a smile on his face. Now his minutes are reduced and he is not even the first man off the bench. Lesser men would pout and fuss, and be subject to transfer rumors.

But by all accounts, Walton has kept his nose the grindstone. Against App State, Walton broke out of his dry spell, hitting 2-3 from downtown, including his first two attempts in a row (skip ahead to the 1:26 mark):

The crowd reaction to Walton letting his shot fly was reminiscent of the celebratory yell that Tar Heel fans in Washington DC made when Kenny Williams hit his first (and only) three of his freshman year. Kenny Williams came to UNC with a sharpshooter’s reputation, but the results did not justify the hype.

Before the Pitt game in the ACC Tournament, Williams was 0-12 from distance on the season. His only made three left him with a dismal 7.7% shooting percentage. But knowledgeable (and kind) Tar Heel fans knew that hitting a relatively meaningless shot against a Pitt team that would get clobbered by a Final Four team was bigger than that moment.

Fast forward to present day. Kerwin’s case is different from Kenny’s because Carolina fans have seen what Kerwin is capable of. He has devastated teams before with his shooting. He’s scouted now. Teams have adjusted their defenses to account for him.

If Kerwin can continue to adjust and get comfortable again--and provide enough defense to keep his +/- on the right side of the graph--he should be a regular in the rotation. With Caleb Love and Armando Bacot dominating touches and action on the offensive end, having Kerwin Walton humming along with a constant and consistent 3-point threat from the wing is extremely valuable. He can have a game like he did against Louisville last season at any time:

Playing double-digit minutes every game is a start. Attempting multiple shots a game is the next step. Walton did not score in the five games previous, and only attempted six shots over that span (with no shot attempts at all against Georgia Tech and Furman). For Carolina to reach its maximum potential in the ACC regular season and NCAA Tournament, Walton cannot be a passenger. Let’s hope that his mini-explosion against App State was the start of his sophomore season resurgence.