Luke Maye’s college career has rapidly progressed from recruited walk-on to bit player to author of an unforgettable shot against Kentucky to legitimate star for the University of North Carolina. This season the junior forward from Huntersville is averaging 17.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game – both those numbers rank among the top five in the ACC – as he prepares for the Tar Heels’ 8:15 p.m. regular-season finale at Duke on Saturday.
Maye sat down with the Observer Monday at the Smith Center for a wide-ranging interview. His answers have been edited for clarity and brevity:
Q: So is it true you were motivated into a 33-point, 17-rebound performance at N.C. State in part by Theo Pinson passing along some Wolfpack trash talk about you not being athletic?
A: Yes. I didn’t really hear it, but Theo came up to me and told me about a minute or two into the second half: “They don’t think you can do what we know you can do.” It was really cool to see him kind of push me and want me to play at a high level.
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Q: What was the goal you set before this season that outsiders would have considered improbable?
A: I’ve always thought I could play in this league and play at a high level. In the offseason (former Tar Heel) Joel (James) and I talked. He wanted to push himself to get better and so did I. So we both made a couple of goals that were really important to us.
The biggest goal for me was that I wanted to average a double-double. I think for us to be successful on the glass, I really needed to take that to heart. But the biggest goal for our team is to win the national championship.
Q: So what is this team’s chances of repeating as national champion?
A: I think the chances are very high. We’ve got a great team that really blends well together. As long as we continue to play for each other, stay on the same page and play for what’s on the front of the jersey, I think that’s the most important thing. Coach preaches that all the time.
Q: Most people would assume you will return to UNC for your senior season even after a breakout junior year in which you have improved your scoring average by more than 12 points and are one of 20 finalists nationwide for the Wooden Award. Will you stay or go pro?
A: I have no idea. I haven’t looked at it.
I’m going to talk with my parents and coaches at the end of the year. I will say that my degree is really important to me and will say I think getting a degree from this university and the business school here is very important. But at the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s best for me after getting great advice.
Q: What is it like playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium like you will once again Saturday night?
A: Having the opportunity to have my first-ever start be at Cameron (in 2017, because of an injury to another starter) – I will never forget that for the rest of my life. Even though we lost, I think it was an opportunity for me to grow as a player by playing at one of the most hostile environments in the country. … I’m really excited to have that opportunity again.
Q: You grew up in a house with two Tar Heels as parents, including one who played quarterback for UNC. Were you taught to hate Duke?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s a hatred. But definitely as a family with my parents both coming from this university, they tried to instill in all my brothers and myself that Carolina was the way to go.
Q: You were announced this week as the winner of the Skip Prosser award, given to the ACC’s top scholar-athlete in men’s basketball. How close are you to graduating?
A: If I wanted to, I could graduate in the fall if I took 15 hours. But I may spread that out.
My favorite class this year has been Business 407 with Professor (C.J.) Skender. It’s a second-level accounting class. I enjoy the way he teaches, and I really enjoy numbers and how you get to a final answer. I like the black and white of numbers, because that’s really how I am.
Q: What makes you angry?
A: On the court, it’s people doubting me and trying to talk trash to me – that really brings out the best in me. I never back down. I’ll take a few jabs, too, depending on the person and situation.
Off the court, I try to learn people’s names and something about them as individuals. I obviously have my own faults – for instance, I don’t open up as much as I should – but I do have a pretty good memory.
So when I walk through campus, the biggest thing to me is being friendly and saying hello to people and calling everyone I can by name. When people don’t speak back or don’t acknowledge that, I think that’s a little bit disrespectful.
Q: You are the oldest of the four Maye brothers – the children of Mark and Aimee Maye – and all the brothers are athletes. Give us an athletic update on the other three.
A: Cole is a pitcher at Florida and they are rolling. They are No. 1 in the country again. (Florida won the NCAA baseball title a year ago, which meant both Luke and Cole Maye won national titles a few months apart.) Cole hasn’t pitched yet this year but he’s still working hard.
Beau and Drake just finished their high school season in basketball (at Hough High in Cornelius). Beau is a sophomore. He finished the season really well, playing about half of each game. He’s still coming back from his knee injury. He’s 6-foot-9 and Harvard has been in to see him – he was excited about that.
Drake played basketball on the varsity team. He had a great football year on the JV team as a quarterback. Both of them want to play on the next level. Drake is pretty much 50-50 on football versus basketball while Beau is all basketball.
Q: Who is your favorite NBA player?
A: Dirk Nowitzki has always been my favorite, from the very beginning. I always wanted to imitate him in everything that I did. ... I haven’t grown to 7 feet (Maye is 6-8). But I still think I shoot it pretty well (Maye has made 46.2 percent of his 3-point attempts this season) and can create mismatches because of the way I play.
Q: How about a couple of your other favorite pro athletes in other sports?
A: I’ve always been a big fan of Aaron Rodgers – he’s a really good quarterback who plays the game the right way. And in baseball, I’ve always liked Albert Pujols.
Q: Best victory of this season?
A: The biggest one would probably be against Duke here – that was obviously a great win. But honestly I’d say winning at Syracuse and at N.C. State. We struggled a little bit early on the road and I think those two wins were a testament to our durability.
Q: Do you think you can be an NBA player?
A: Yes, as a stretch “4” – although I definitely have a lot of ways I can improve. I think there are areas that could really make me a lot more difficult to guard. I can still get a lot better defensively. But as the NBA game continues to change and goes to a smaller lineup, I think my game translates pretty well.
Q: What’s the nicest compliment someone can pay you?
A: There are two. First, it’s, “Man, he really cares about me and my life and what I do.”
My mom and dad have both instilled in me that everyone likes to be complimented and everyone likes to know that they are remembered. I think that starts by remembering people’s names.
Secondly, when people say, “Man, he’s somebody who works hard.” In everything that I do, I try to give my very best. I’ve been taught that since a young age.
Q: The NCAA is embroiled in another scandal, this one involving an FBI investigation. Should college scholarship athletes in high-profile sports also be paid?
A: It’s been tough for me (to decide) because I really value my education. I’m not saying other people don’t. I’m saying for myself that we come to this university to get a degree and basketball is supposed to go along with that, not be the central focus point.
But I agree that I think that it’s tough sometimes when shirts are sold and seats are sold and our “March Madness” is so popular that it really funds most of the other championships. I wouldn’t say we should get a specific amount but I think that the royalties from the (merchandise) – that should be taken into consideration. I can see an argument for both sides.
Q: You room with fellow juniors Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson. What’s that like?
A: Really good. Being able to room together has probably been good for all of us. None of us are that sloppy. Kenny and I are kind of clean freaks – Kenny more than myself. Cam is more messy, but at least he keeps the mess more central to his room. All three of us have another year left (they are all juniors), which is pretty special.
Q: What is your go-to eating place on or around Franklin Street?
A: A place called Purple Bowl. It sells acai bowls with a lot of fruits, a lot of different condiments. It’s really something new and different.
Q: You had a scary car wreck in June where you made a driving mistake, flipped several times on Interstate 85 and walked away unhurt. Do you ever think about that?
A: I think about it sometimes. Whenever I’m put in a situation that’s pretty tough or one in which I’m facing adversity, I remember it and realize that I am very blessed to be here right now.