College Basketball

UNC forward Luke Maye preparing to step up this year

North Carolina’s Luke Maye, right, “has a tremendous ability to shoot the ball,” coach Roy Williams says. “He himself creates a mismatch for some people.” The departure of Brice Johnson and Joel James leaves Maye as the likely first big man off the bench in the coming season.
North Carolina’s Luke Maye, right, “has a tremendous ability to shoot the ball,” coach Roy Williams says. “He himself creates a mismatch for some people.” The departure of Brice Johnson and Joel James leaves Maye as the likely first big man off the bench in the coming season. rwillett@newsobserver.com

He sometimes has trouble getting the ball to go where he wants it.

“It’s just left and right, and it needs to be more straight,” North Carolina forward Luke Maye said recently.

In this case, Maye wasn’t talking about basketball. For the past month, he’s been equally as occupied with putting a much smaller ball in the hole.

Golf is also a passion.

“I take pride in playing bogey golf,” he said, “but I’ve gotten a little bit better.”

If he has, it’s because he’s finally found time to play.

During the school year – with classes and daily basketball workouts – he could rarely break out his clubs. He’s been playing golf since he was 12 with his father and brothers, but time during the season was scarce. That changed when the Tar Heels’ season ended.

Since then, Maye, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, has tried to make it to UNC’s Finley Golf Club at least once a week. He went with teammate Kanler Coker and – before he was drafted last week by the Utah Jazz – former Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige. With only one class and fewer workouts, Maye said he’s improving. He recently shot a personal-best 82 for 18 holes.

But the time for working on his golf game has passed. UNC’s second summer session began June 20, and with it the start of the Tar Heels’ rigorous offseason program.

Working harder

When Maye first arrived in Chapel Hill from Hough High, he came without much of the fanfare of many of his teammates.

He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American in high school. And while he had scholarship offers from some schools, including Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Davidson, North Carolina wasn’t one of them.

Luke’s father, Mark, played quarterback on the Tar Heels’ football team in the ’80s, and as a child Luke attended basketball camp at the university. North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams knew him from those camps, and eventually asked the Huntersville native to come play for his Tar Heels as a preferred walk-on.

Williams couldn’t offer a scholarship until Maye’s second season. Maye came anyway.

“He was very honest, very straightforward,” Maye said of Williams recruiting him. “I felt like we had the opportunity to do something special this year.”

He was right. In Maye’s freshman season, the Tar Heels came up seconds short of winning a national championship against Villanova.

But for all his team’s accomplishments, Maye played sparingly. He averaged 1.2 points, 1.6 rebounds and 5.6 minutes and never played more than 15 in any game. His season high in scoring was 7 points against Appalachian State in December.

Once UNC’s season ended and the team returned to Chapel Hill, Maye met with Williams to discuss the future.

“Everybody appreciates the way Luke works and how hard he works,” Williams said, “but it basically boiled down to he was gonna work harder than he’s ever worked in his life.”

Getting stronger

Two and a half weeks.

That’s how long Williams gave his team off after the national championship game.

Maye didn’t need that long. He was back in the gym with strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratian within a week.

“Marcus (Paige), Justin (Jackson), Brice (Johnson) and Joel (James) were all getting ready for the NBA, but I was just in there with them because I felt like I needed to get stronger,” Maye said. “I didn’t really play much towards the end of the year, so I wasn’t really sore or tired.”

Maye said he honed in on two areas to improve: his defense and explosiveness.

“He’s in that position where he’s gonna have to play some guys out on the floor and he’s gonna have to play some guys down in the post,” Williams said, “so defensively he really does have to concentrate.”

Playing the role of a power forward on defense can be tough, but offensively it has its perks. Maye has shown a propensity for shooting from deep and getting to the rim. As a senior at Hough, he averaged 20.7 points and 15.5 rebounds.

“Luke has a tremendous ability to shoot the ball,” Williams said. “He himself creates a mismatch for some people.”

Next season, he should better be able to prove that. The departure of Johnson and James leaves Maye as the likely first big man off the bench. Playing that role last season, rising senior Isaiah Hicks averaged 8.9 points and was ACC Sixth Man of the Year.

The opportunity is clearly there.

If last season’s practices are any indication, Hicks predicts a breakout season for Maye.

“You can ask anybody,” Hicks said. “Who gives us the most problems as a big? Everyone would say Luke.”

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