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UNC Basketball: Most Improved 2023 - RJ Davis

Our annual superlatives begin by recognizing the guard who became even better last season.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images

It goes without saying that writing an awards post this year is a lot tougher than last year. Our eyes tell us that just about everything we saw last season was a drop back from the year prior, and those drops led to a huge disappointment in the results versus what was expected. It’s easy to paint everyone with a broad brush as regressing from the year prior.

The numbers, however, do tell a different story. It’s also a story that exemplifies what might have been.

RJ Davis came into the season with an injury to his shooting hand, and it showed in the way he shot the ball. It took until the Indiana game for him to shoot above 33% from three for a game, and that was just a 1-2 performance. He followed that up by laying an egg against Virginia Tech in the loss to the Hokies, and while a lot of pointing was going to Caleb Love and the injured Armando Bacot, Davis wasn’t helping.

He was making free throws, though. He overtook Caleb Love as the best free throw shooter on the team, leading the team at 88% overall, and only missed three total during that opening stretch through the Hokies game. For whatever reason—maybe it was the tape on his hand—it wouldn’t translate to behind the arc.

Things changed after that Hokies loss, though. Over the next 12 games, Davis would shoot a blistering 28-60 from three, or 46.7%. He was especially strong during a six game stretch from Wake Forest to N.C. State where he went 18-32, or 56.3% from three. It’s no coincidence that stretch was UNC’s best of the season, and one where fans didn’t really have any doubts about Carolina making it to the Tournament.

That Syracuse game, though, changed the course. Davis hurt his hand again and took a blow to the face while taking a charge, and over the next seven games he would regress back to the beginning of the season level. Again, no coincidence that was when Carolina’s NCAA fortunes sunk lower.

RJ would rebound at the end of the season. Over their last five games, he went 16-30, or 53.3% from three, and was a big reason why they were at least in both of the losses to Duke and Virginia. His free throw shooting never sagged, and he improved an already staggering 83% from the line to 88%. He also found his rhythm in his shooting overall, as his 42.5% field goal shooting jumped to 43.8%. He finished right about the same from behind the arc as he did a season ago-36.2% this year versus 36.7% last-which is pretty remarkable when you consider the two deep slumps he had.

Comparing RJ’s stats from 2021-22, you’d think they ended up the same, but a look at the game-by-game shows that RJ was a much more up and down player over the course of that season versus this one. He would go one or two games on fire behind the arc, and then disappear. He wasn’t consistent at all, and that was one thing that definitely improved this season. He had two distinct, sustained, periods where he was shooting over 40% from three, and it arguably would have been one long sustained period had it not been for the Syracuse game. That alone is a huge improvement.

RJ is still deciding if he’ll come back for another season, but if he does, a big focus next year will be whether he can stay healthy an entire season. He showed flashes in 22-23 of just how dynamic he can be for the Tar Heels, and over the course of the season he quickly became the more reliable guard on the floor over his partner, Caleb Love. With some health and a little more focus on defense, RJ has the chance to be a real force on the floor next season.