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UNC Basketball: Sophomore Grades

Hubert Davis leaned on a starting sophomore backcourt that eventually got him all the way to New Orleans.

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

Yesterday, Akil kicked of Tar Heel Blog’s end of season grading with the freshman class. Today, we review the sophomores.

In a strange way, the sophomores drove a lot of the team’s stability, despite still being underclassmen. They comprised the starting backcourt and the Sixth Man of the Year. Without Davis and Love in particular, this year’s team would be dead on arrival. Instead, they breathed life into first year head coach Hubert Davis’s new Carolina Way. Let’s take a look at how they all graded out.

Anthony Harris

Injuries were the name of the game for Anthony Harris during his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. His heartbreaking freshman season was only five games long before he tore his right ACL against Yale (Harris had torn his left ACL a year earlier as a high school senior). After missing the first 12 games of his redshirt freshman season, he clearly had a hill to climb with new freshmen guards ahead of him in the rotation, three of whom took turns in the starting lineup.

Harris improved his minutes per game from 2020-21. Barely. He was up to 11.8 mpg from 10.9 the previous season, and while his shooting percentages improved across the board, his volume was down, leading to a decreased scoring average of 2.6 ppg.

No matter, scoring wasn’t what was going to get Anthony Harris in the game, it was his defense. Harris had a defensive rating of 108.9, the highest of his career. Unfortunately, that rating was only over the course of 14 games. Harris was “unavailable” from 21 January 2022 until the end of the season. He entered the transfer portal on 13 April.

Grade: Did not complete

Kerwin Walton

Nobody had as an abrupt drop in production from their freshman to sophomore season as Kerwin Walton. The sophomore sniper, who was elevated to the starting line-up by Roy Williams last season when it was apparent he was the only Tar Heel who could regularly hit a three-point shot, suddenly saw his opportunities limited when Hubert Davis found himself replete with deep threats.

Walton’s stats across the board dropped like Netflix stock (NASDAQ: NFLX). His season total minutes dropped 32.5%. His per game average dropped 7.7 mpg. His shooting percentages dropped, particularly his previously stellar 42% 3P% to 35.4%. He averaged only 3.4 ppg.

So we’ve clearly seen the floor.

There were two factors at play conspiring together to keep Kerwin on the bench. First, his teammates got muuuuch better at shooting the three-pointer, negating the need for him to space the floor. Second, his own defense got exposed. Kerwin was on skates, he was in the washing machine, he was chasing ghosts. When he’d enter the game, opposing teams would seek him out to run action against. It got tough to watch at times.

Kerwin Walton is the unfortunate victim in the change from a Roy Williams system to the new Hubert Davis one. During his freshman season, Carolina had two bigs that would screen his defenders off to get him set shots. This season, there’s more emphasis on spacing, and Walton doesn’t seem to be able to create his own shot.

I credit him for not transferring. I was half certain that he would join Anthony Harris and Dawson Garcia in the transfer portal, and likely end up in Minnesota with Garcia, his former roommate. The good news is that his talent hasn’t disappeared, and he now knows exactly what Hubert Davis needs from him. A lot of three-pointers are walking out the door with Brady Manek, and they’ll need to come from somewhere. Why not from the Doc?

Grade: C

Puff Johnson

Protect Puff at all costs!!!

Puff Johnson spent the beginning of the injury in warm-ups, still recovering from a toe injury. Long-limbed, like the spiders in my garage, Puff did put on a noticeable amount of bulk from his freshman year. He won’t be confused with the Rock in “Baywatch,” but he is showing that he’ll be able to bang in the post in the years to come.

This past season, he would contribute for spot minutes, as the Iron Five shouldered the bulk of playing time. He was deployed for longer periods of time twice to torment NC State, collecting then season highs of 17, then 29 minutes against the Wolfpack, giving them 8 and 16 points respectively. He came alive in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 11 points in the opening round thrashing of Marquette and 11 points in the title game loss to Kansas.

Puff’s legend began to grow in the Final Four. He had an absolutely massive moment boxing out Paolo Banchero in the closing moments of Coach K’s final loss after Armando Bacot fouled out. He got whacked in the stomach by David McCormick and famously threw up on the court. His moments made expectations for his junior season explode into “unreasonable” territory, but that shouldn’t distract that he has a big part to play in next season’s team.

After more than doubling his minutes from 4.1 to 10.4 mpg, with an additional 10 games played, expect his minutes to double again. Pending further roster changes, Puff has starting potential, and if he stays healthy, he should be able to approach, then exceed 20 mpg.

Grade: B

RJ Davis

What a difference a season makes. RJ Davis began last season as half of a dual point guard starting backcourt. When Davis and Caleb Love couldn’t provide the requisite outside shooting to take pressure off of Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot on the blocks, Davis ceded his starting spot to Kerwin Walton.

This season? RJ Davis was back in the starting lineup and played an almost irresponsible 34 mpg. The increased workload was a reward for increased production. Davis improved in every single statistical category from his freshman year. Every. Single. One.

His scoring improved in both volume and efficiency. His percentages went up, including his 42.5% FG % (+7.5% from last season), his 36.7% 3P% (+4.4%), and his 83.3% FT% (+1.2%). His rebounding and assists went up. His steals and blocks went up. His mastery of the offense, especially towards the end of the season when he became more of Carolina’s primary ball handler, was a big reason why the Tar Heels went on such a hot run to close the regular season and show out in the NCAA Tournament.

The only thing that really keeps RJ Davis from hitting even higher highs is Caleb Love. Both guards are like trains that need plenty of coal, but they have struck a balance to both tear down the tracks at the same time, while deferring to whoever has the hot hand on a given night. Seeing them both on the court as juniors would really be a sight to behold.

Grade: A-

Caleb Love

Similar to his backcourt mate RJ Davis, Caleb Love made a significant jump in statistical excellence during his sophomore season. The St. Louis native had a particularly jarring improvement from three-point range, going from 26.6% to 36% as a sophomore. That’s fantastic!

Love could stand to improve his shooting inside of the three-point line, particularly at the rim. There were times last season at end of game situations where he didn’t have as much explosion as we’re used to seeing (Caleb has a distinct “cocked-back” motion when he wants to hammer down on someone at the rim), likely a result of the heavy minutes he was playing.

Caleb could benefit from less overall minutes leading to more efficient play. His 15.9 ppg average was great, but he had five single-digit scoring games in the regular season and a 5-point performance against Baylor in the Tournament. Too many for a star of Love’s caliber.

If Hubert Davis can sort out the rotation to get Caleb some dedicated rest, he could play more explosively throughout the game. His size and strength at the point guard spot make him a problem for most college teams, especially when the Tar Heels seek to exploit switches in the pick and roll. More of the same, plus a summer to improve at a similar rate from last year would probably put Caleb Love in contention for 1st team All-ACC.

Grade: A-

Let us know what you think of these grades in the comments below. Tomorrow we’ll cover the junior class!