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UNC Basketball: Grading the 2020-21 freshman class

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Two Tar Heels are exiting the program early, but this class still has a lot of potential next season.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-North Carolina Florida State Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

This week we will continue our wrap-up of the Carolina Basketball 2020-21 season by grading each class as well as the coaches. We will kick things off by grading the Tar Heels’ freshman class, who was one of the highest ranked recruiting classes in the Roy Williams era. Day’Ron Sharpe, Walker Kessler, Caleb Love, and RJ Davis were all McDonald’s All-Americans following their final year of high school basketball, and joined the team with high expectations. How did they do their first year? Let’s take a look, but first it is worth noting that we did not give Puff Johnson a grade for this season. Due to COVID protocols and the coaching decisions that followed, Johnson’s sample size is incredibly small, so it would be unfair to give him any kind of meaningful grade. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

Caleb Love

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

Season finish: 10.5 PPG, 2.6 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 3.1 TOV, .316 FG%, .266 3PT%

Caleb Love arrived on campus with both some fair and unfair expectations as a freshman point guard. After back to back seasons of Coby White and Cole Anthony, it was hard not to expect Love to provide some of the natural scoring ability that we had become accustomed to. However, Love was never able to get his shot going during the season, and was especially poor when shooting from deep. While he did take some questionable shots throughout the season like any freshman would, it’s also fair to say that the ball refused to go into the basket even when he took good shots. His struggles shooting the ball contributed to UNC’s ability to space out the floor, which in turn led to clogged driving lanes when he tried to get to the rim. If he is able to improve his shooting for next season, it should blast open the door for what this team can accomplish.

As far as point guard skills go, there’s no other way to describe the season other than to say he is still learning the position. Both he and RJ Davis had countless mistakes and turnovers all season long, but truly it was hard not to expect this to at least some degree considering UNC’s history with freshmen point guards. The struggle was amplified by the extremely unusual season itself, and I can’t imagine either point guard got to have quality film room time with the team. Defensively Love had some really impressive moments, but he still has a lot of room for improvement. I would be willing to be that we see this part of his game grow as the ball goes in the basket for him more often, but time will only tell.

Final Grade: C-

RJ Davis

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Season finish: 8.4 PPG, 1.9 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.9 TOV, .350 FG%, .323 3PT%

One of Roy Williams’ more unusual experiments during the 2020-21 season was starting both Caleb Love and RJ Davis for the first portion of the season. While this was a great idea in theory, Love and Davis struggled to find their footing when playing on the court together. Focusing on Davis specifically, things felt a bit more stable when it came to his offense. While Love and Davis averaged the exact same amount of points per game per 40 minutes, Davis was easily more efficient than his counterpart. He was far more selective with his offense, but at the end of the day his output still wasn’t up to par with the expectations he arrived on campus with. It feels more like his struggles this season were simply a freshman needing time to adjust, and I’d expect his shot to fall more going into his sophomore year.

As a facilitatior, Davis’ assist-to-turnover ratio was exactly 1.0. He didn’t manage to turn the ball over in bunches per game, but he also didn’t make enough plays for his teammates to create separation from the mistakes he made. If you are looking for a game that created gave us a peek at how good he can be, look no further than the game against Iowa. He finished the game against the Hawkeyes with 12 points, eight assists, and three turnovers, and it was also one of his most efficient shooting nights of the season. RJ Davis has a bright future with the Tar Heels, but much like Love it was hard to expect anything more than what we saw this season, unfair expectations aside.

Final Grade: C

Kerwin Walton

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

Season finish: 8.2 PPG, 1.7 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.2 TOV, .444 FG%, .420 3PT%

This goes without saying, but Kerwin Walton was easily the biggest surprise this season for the Tar Heels. Being one of two freshmen not to make the McDonald’s All-American team, Walton was arguably the most important player on this roster, and in a lot of games he was the difference between a win and a loss. He had an incredible season shooting the ball, knocking down 52% of his shots from two-point range and 42% of his shots from deep. Rarely did it feel like the ball wasn’t going in when he attempted to shoot, and he gave the team a completely different look whenever he was on the court.

If there is one negative against Walton, it was his defense. Roy Williams ultimately had to choose perimeter shooting for the starting lineup over Walton’s biggest weakness, but there’s no reason to think that it can’t improve with time. One thing that all of the freshmen this season have in common is that they’re willing to put in the work, and I can see Walton only getting better and better defensively before it’s time for him to leave Chapel Hill. Overall, Walton’s sharpshooting skills were enough to give him the first “A” in this freshmen class.

Final Grade: A-

Walker Kessler

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia Tech North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Season finish: 4.4 PPG, 3.2 REB, 0.3 AST, 0.9 BLK, 0.6 TOV, .593 FG%, .250 3PT%

Things got off to a rocky start for five-star big man Walker Kessler. Much like Puff Johnson, Kessler wasn’t able to get much playing time at the beginning of the season due to COVID protocols. It wasn’t until the game against Virginia when we would see Kessler contribute meaningful minutes, and that is when it started becoming clear just how good he was. Kessler was a force in the paint this season, and used his entire 7’1 frame to dominate defenders. His best game of the season was against Florida State in Chapel Hill, as he finished the game with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and shot 90% from the field.

One of the more puzzling aspects of Kessler’s game in hindsight was his rebounding numbers. While he did have some good games on the glass (Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament comes to mind), he mostly was disappointing in that department. Remember how I said he had eight rebounds against Florida State in that second game? When the Heels faced off against them in the ACC Tournament he only managed to pull down three boards. That combined with his hot and cold defense kept him from receiving a top grade, and he was undoubtedly one of the best freshmen this season.

Final Grade: B

Day’Ron Sharpe

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Season finish: 9.5 PPG, 7.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.9 BLK, 2.0 TOV, .519 FG%

Let’s get this out of the way: Day’Ron Sharpe was arguably the best freshman in the 2020-21 class. Extremely loud whispers at the beginning of the season suggested that Sharpe would be a one-and-done player, and his play during the season only cemented that fact. I personally hate discussing players’ “motors” when it comes to their level of aggression on the court, but there’s really no other way to put it: Sharpe’s motor was off the charts. All season long he fought for every shot at the rim, every rebound, every block, and even showed some nice touch as a passer. He finished the season with five double-doubles, with the game against Louisville being his most impressive performance. He finished that game with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

If we were to nit-pick, my only biggest disappointments with Sharpe this season were some frustrating turnovers and his lack of physical awareness. When it comes to the physical awareness specifically, I don’t think Sharpe realizes just how big and strong he is, which isn’t an uncommon issue for young bigs. It will be a whole other ball game in the NBA, but his future will look extremely bright once he realizes that he can overpower a lot of people in the paint. He will undoubtedly put in the sweat both on the court and in the gym, and I look forward to seeing what he is able to do at the next level.

Final Grade: A