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Luke Maye has gone from walk-on recruit to star for North Carolina basketball

One of the best stories in college basketball resides in Chapel Hill.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Davidson Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Luke Maye story was already written. Former walk-on turns into NCAA tournament hero by making one of the biggest shots in North Carolina history, a buzzer-beater to defeat Kentucky and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four. If that’s where it ended, it was still a hell of a ride.

Maye only scored two points the rest of the tournament in UNC’s run to the national championship after his shot to beat the Wildcats. He went back to being the player he was all season: A reserve forward stuck playing behind three great big men in North Carolina’s frontcourt rotation.

Carolina would win it all, but it came with a cost. Kennedy Meeks and Isaac Hicks were lost to graduation, while Tony Bradley became the rare one-and-done under Roy Williams. Suddenly Maye was the lone veteran member in a UNC frontcourt that would also be relying on a trio of three-star freshmen centers.

North Carolina needed Maye in a big way this season. Somehow, he’s surpassed every expectation. Through 10 games, all Maye is doing is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He’s not filling a role, he’s a legitimate national player of the year candidate.

He’s also one of the best stories of the young college basketball season.

The acceleration of his development has been unbelievable

Luke Maye year-over-year

Stats Freshman Sophomore Junior
Stats Freshman Sophomore Junior
Points per game 1.2 5.5 19.9
True shooting percentage 42 53.6 61.7
Offensive rating 97.1 113.7 125.6
Usage rate 16.5 19.7 24.7
Defensive rebound rate 17.9 17.4 24.2
Assist rate 5.8 13.7 15.5
Block rate 1.8 1.6 4

All Maye needed was an opportunity. With the first real workload of his college career, he’s putting numbers that are as impressive as any veteran big man in the country.

Maye was supposed to be a shooter when he entered the program. He’s lived up to that billing, hitting 48.1 percent of his threes this season. He's also only attempting 2.7 threes per game. There's so much more to his game than shooting, and he’s showing it this year.

Maye has turned into a monster rebounder and a dependable inside scorer. He’s had a double-double in six of his 10 games, and missed it by one rebound in two more. He can score on the block, with a putback, or as a face-up shooter.

For a UNC team that started the season without star point guard Joel Berry and is currently missing transfer Cameron Johnson, Maye has become the workhorse. How did this happen so quickly and so dramatically?

He’s in better shape

Here’s Maye’s picture as a recruit:


His skill level was never in question as a recruit, it was always his athleticism. You don’t become a nightly 20-10 threat without improving your body, and that’s exactly what Maye has done.

Here’s where we note something important: Maye was never really a walk-on. Walk-ons aren’t fringe top-100 recruits, as Maye was coming out of Hough High School in Huntersville, N.C. He was only recruited as a walk-on by North Carolina because Roy Williams had his final scholarship offer extended to Brandon Ingram.

Maye committed to UNC as a walk-on with the promise of a scholarship the next year. It was his dream school, the place where his father once played quarterback. But he never had to pay his own way: When Ingram chose Duke, the Tar Heels’ last open scholarship was given to Maye.

Can he sustain this?

If he can, North Carolina is again a legitimate national title contender once Johnson returns from injury. But there are some reasons to be cautious.

For one, Maye had his two worst games against the two best frontcourts he faced. Against Michigan State, who might have the best front court in America, he put up eight points and six rebounds on 3-of-13 shooting. UNC lost that game by 18. Against Stanford, led by Reid Travis, he scored 12 points on 6-of-15 shooting, but had nine rebounds and five assists.

At 6’8, 240 pounds, Maye is equipped to dominate most college competition thanks to his motor, inside scoring touch and face-up ability. But when he goes against bigger, more athletic players with real NBA aspirations, his limitations could start to show.

Regardless, Maye’s rapid development has been one of the great storylines of this season. North Carolina is supposed to be led by blue-chip recruits, not a player who originally committed as a walk-on. It’s been a fairy tale season for someone who grew up a North Carolina fan and has suddenly morphed into the team’s star forward.

As Luke Maye goes, so goes UNC. Who would have thought that three years ago?