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UNC Basketball: A look at what is next for Caleb Love

Love is coming back next season. This is a good development.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In case you somehow missed it, Caleb Love is returning to UNC. It’s a huge boon for the Heels, who faced the prospect of entering next season with a different starting point guard for the fifth consecutive season. Instead, Love is on track to become the first UNC point guard since Marcus Paige to return after starting at the position for the majority of their freshman season.

That stability cannot be understated, and has not existed since Joel Berry led the Heels from 2016-2018. In case you forgot, those two seasons involved an ACC regular season title, an NCAA title, and an ACC Tournament title. Their record over that time was 59-18.

Admittedly, next year’s Heels won’t have the same level of experience as those two teams. Also, with at least four scholarships available and two high school recruits already signed, another major influx of new players for the third consecutive season is likely. So, manage your expectations while acknowledging that a return to some sort of normalcy in Chapel Hill is a legitimate possibility.

Much of that hinges on Love’s offseason growth. As a freshman, he inarguably struggled in every facet of the game. For the majority of the season, whatever a point guard is supposed to do, Love often did the exact the opposite. His production brought out calls from various corners of UNC fandom to find a “real” point guard amid concerns he was having a historically inept season. Here’s the quick comparison to every freshman point guard who has played or started significant minutes under Roy Williams.

UNC Starting Freshman PGs

Player Year Games (Started) MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2P% 3P% TS% eFG%
Player Year Games (Started) MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2P% 3P% TS% eFG%
Bobby Frasor 2005-2006 31 (31) 27.5 6.4 2.2 4.4 2.4 0.9 37.4 43.2 31 48.5 44.8
Ty Lawson 2006-2007 38 (31) 25.7 10.2 2.9 5.6 2.2 1.5 50 56.4 35.6 58.1 55.5
Kendall Marshall 2010-2011 37 (20) 24.6 6.2 2.1 6.2 2.5 1.1 42 43.4 38.5 52.1 47.5
Marcus Paige 2012-2013 35 (34) 29.2 8.2 2.7 4.6 1.4 1.4 35.6 36.8 34.4 48.3 44
Nate Britt 2013-2014 34 (16) 20.9 5.1 1.2 2.4 1.7 1.1 36.7 37.7 25 45.5 37.7
Coby White 2018-2019 35 (35) 28.5 16.1 3.5 4.1 2.7 1.1 42.3 50 35.3 55.6 51.6
Cole Anthony 2019-2020 22 (20) 34.9 18.5 5.7 4 3.5 1.3 38 40.2 34.8 50.1 45.1
Caleb Love 2020-2021 29 (26) 27.7 10.5 2.6 3.6 3.1 1.2 31.6 34.8 26.6 41.7 26.8

Objectively, Love’s numbers aren’t favorable compared to previous freshman point guards. Only the most passionate fan, owning 17 pairs of Carolina-blue tinted glasses, could argue he wasn’t “that” bad. Good thing for you, I only own one pair. No sane person can really explain or rationalize his inadequate inefficiency, but I can provide a few reasons for optimism for next season.

First, all saw marked improvement in their second seasons (when applicable). This is common sense and thus, shouldn’t require too much brain power. Love just has...even more room for improvement. To be fair, none of the previous point guards played on a team with as much youth as this year’s squad. Only Cole played with a less talented roster. Here are those sophomore numbers:

Sophomore Stats for UNC Starting Freshmen PGs 

Player Year Games (Started) MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2P% 3P% TS% eFG%
Player Year Games (Started) MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2P% 3P% TS% eFG%
Bobby Frasor 2006-2007 28 (6) 10.1 2.4 0.7 1.6 0.8 0.5 40.3 45.8 36.8 50.9 51.6
Ty Lawson 2007-2008 32 (29) 25.3 12.7 2.7 5.2 2.2 1.6 51.5 58.2 36.1 62.2 57
Kendall Marshall 2011-2012 36 (35) 33 8.1 2.6 9.8 2.8 1.2 46.7 52.7 35.4 55.8 52.9
Marcus Paige 2013-2014 34 (33) 35.6 17.5 3.2 4.2 2.1 1.5 44 49.3 38.9 59.2 53.9
Nate Britt 2014-2015 38 (3) 15.3 5.5 1.4 1.5 1 0.5 38.4 39.8 36.6 54.4 46.5
Caleb Love 2020-2021 TO BE DETERMINED

Even Bobby Frasor and Nate Britt, who saw their freshmen roles permanently altered, improved their efficiency. Unless the Heels bring in another high-caliber point guard, being relegated to the bench won’t be a concern for Love.

Second, Love started showing signs of improvement late in the season. It was still up and down, but his overall numbers over the final six games aren’t completely discouraging. Check it out.

Love’s Season vs Last 6 Games

Stats (Avg) MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2p% 3P%
Stats (Avg) MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2p% 3P%
All Season 27.7 10.5 2.6 3.6 3.1 1.2 31.6 34.8 26.6
Last 6 games 27.2 12.2 3.3 3.3 2.3 1 33.3 29.3 38.2

An uptick in three point shooting, points, and rebounds are good developments. As are the decreased turnovers and (slightly) better A:TO. Three-point success offsets the decreased two-point efficiency. UNC did go 3-3 in those games, but those included four NCAA Tournament teams - Florida State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and Wisconsin. Anyone who watched those know that Love was not the primary point of failure.

Obviously, there is room to improve. That’s the entire point of this rabbit hole. But with another year in the system, a full offseason of strength and skill development, and we assume fewer big men in the rotation, Love should find more space to operate inside and outside of the paint.

Third, a common lament has been that UNC needs a “real” or “traditional” point guard. Most people think of a facilitator who can score, rather than a scorer who facilitates. Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, and Kendall Marshall fit the former description. Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, Coby White, and Cole Anthony were the latter. The simple answer is that the game has changed. High-level distributors are more rare than ever, but as the 2016-2019 seasons showed, UNC can still be plenty successful with a new-age PG.

The most interesting stat to show the disparity between the two generations are the assists per game. From 2004-2012, Bobby Frasor’s freshmen season was the only season that a UNC PG did not average more than 5 assists per game. After Kendall Marshall graduated, the landscape shifted. From 2013-2021, only one player averaged more than 5 assists per game. That was human Swiss Army knife Theo Pinson, who averaged 5.1 assists in 2017-18.

It’s important to note that those declining assist numbers from the point guard positions hasn’t decreased the willingness to share. Per KenPom, in the first eight years of the Roy-era (‘04-’12), UNC’s assist rate (the percentage of total field goals that are assisted) finished in the top-50 just twice. From 2013-2021, they have finished in the top-50 five times.

Finally, there is a recent NCAA point guard who serves as a beacon of hope for a monster sophomore year from Love.

Florida’s Tre Mann just finished his sophomore season. Listed at 6-5, 190 lbs, he was 2019 McDonald’s All-American. A consensus 5-star recruit, the 247 Sports Composite listed him as the #12 overall recruit and #2 overall PG.

Love, is listed at 6-4, 195 lbs. He was a 2020 McDonald’s All-American. A consensus 5-star recruit, the 247 Sports Composite listed him as #14 overall recruit and #2 overall PG.

Those are about as close you can get to establishing an equal baseline for comparison. Here’s how their freshmen seasons stacked up, plus Mann’s sophomore production. After a major “sophomore leap”, Mann recently declared for the NBA draft and will hear his name called on draft night.

Mann vs Love Comparison

Player/Season MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2p% 3P% TS% eFG%
Player/Season MPG PPG RPG APG TO STL FG% 2p% 3P% TS% eFG%
Mann (FR) 17.8 5.3 1.9 0.7 1.1 0.6 35.6 43.8 27.5 44.6 42.5
Mann (SO) 32.2 15.9 5.6 3.4 2.8 1.4 33.3 45.9 49.4 40.2 53.3
Love (FR) 27.7 10.5 2.6 3.6 3.1 1.2 31.6 34.8 26.6 41.7 36.8

To be clear, this isn’t to compare their freshman seasons. Different systems, skill sets, off-court situations, and surrounding talent don’t make this an apples-to-apples comparison. But, it does help provide context and insight into Love’s potential. Added to the previous improvement by UNC point guards and the evolution of the point guard position, there aren’t many (any?) valid reasons to have much concern heading into next season.

The fact is, being a freshman point guard is just really hard. Caleb also had the unfortunate distinction of following Coby and Cole. It skewed expectations and heightened his struggles. That still didn’t prevent him from being named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team. None of this means that he will make a huge sophomore leap, but there are clearly reasons for optimism.

So, let’s celebrate the return of a point guard for the first time in four years and look forward to Love developing into an all-ACC talent.