By Turner Walston
Sometimes in this business, it works out. A writer has an idea for a column, a direction he or she wants to go, but just needs that final push, that development that will push a story over the top. So the sportswriter (in this case) goes to a game looking for a capper that will really sell the story.
And then with two minutes and thirty seconds left in the first half of Carolina's game at NC State Wednesday, Luke Maye catches the ball on the wing, gives a pump fake at the three-point line to get Omer Yurtseven in the air, takes a dribble and two steps, rises from the block and flushes a two-handed dunk.
Luke Maye, of course, was a story before the dunk. He earned his first career start last week with Isaiah Hicks injured prior to the game at Duke. Maye, who hadn't played at all in last year's match-up in Cameron, played OK. He had eight points, a pair of rebounds and two assists in the loss. More important than any line on the box score, however, was the confidence that he displayed in such a hostile environment.
So when the healthy Hicks got in foul trouble on Wednesday at PNC Arena, Maye was ready when called upon. Hicks played seven minutes; Maye played 23. He scored a career-high 13 points and hauled in seven rebounds in the Tar Heels' 24-point win.
"I'd like to have Isaiah in the game more, but Luke did some good things for us," said Roy Williams, ever measured. "I think he made one three, the last one he shot, I didn't want him shooting it at all because I didn't think it was intelligent, but still, 13 points, 6 for 11, played 23 minutes, yes, he did some good things for us."
This season, with the graduations of Brice Johnson and Joel James opening up minutes inside, Maye has gotten ľand earnedľ more opportunities for playing time. He keeps his feet defensively and uses his body to claim real estate for rebounds. He screens for his teammates and rolls off of those screens. He's fundamentally sound, which is something we often say about players who look like Luke Maye.
The son of a quarterback, Maye is also a tremendous receiver for his teammates. He knows where to be, where to catch the ball, where his teammates will find him so that he may score efficiently. Maye is not going to beat many people off the dribble, but he doesn't have to. He can post up, turn and score, or hit from outside. There are basketball players who create for themselves, and there are players like Maye, who know where to be and when. "That's just the chemistry and us knowing Luke's game. If I know Luke is setting a screen, more than likely he's going to pop," Joel Berry said. "He rolls sometimes, too but I think that's him just reading the defense, and he does a good job of that. Then, when we come off the ball screen, we do a great job of seeing the defense and seeing where he is."
"It's just kind of my basketball IQ," Maye said. "Coach keeps telling me to play smarter out there on the court, and that's what I keep trying to do every day in practice and transfer to the games."
And then there was the dunk. It didn't just happen, of course. Yurtseven doesn't go for Maye's pump fake unless he respects Maye's ability to shoot from outside. Maye is a 6'8 forward who can score inside, but his pure jumper allows him, and therefore the Tar Heels, to stretch the floor. And the shot fakes like Maye displayed get the defense off of their feet, creating shooting space or opening up passing and driving lanes.
Maye's initial description of his slam was rather mundane. "Coach has been telling us, 'pump fake, pump fake, pump fake,' and I knew Omer knew I could probably shoot it, and so I just pump faked and I realized I was wide open so I just went up, and ran back on defense," he said. Just went up, eh, Luke? "Once I saw no one was going to rotate over, I knew I was going to dunk it."
And so did his teammates. Kennedy Meeks wouldn't say that he'd been dunked on by Maye in practice, but fooled by a shot fake? "Pump fake, yeah," Meeks said. "He gets me all the time. He probably has the best pump fake on the team. Whoever was guarding him really went flying, and he was wide open, so I told him he should have one-handed dunked it."
"We're guilty of that in practice," Hicks said of falling for Maye's fakes. "He has a pretty believable pump fake. It's slow, too, but he had that drive and dunk. That's pretty exciting to see. Everybody looks at Luke not as a skilled great player. Luke is actually good."
Now, why in the world would 'everybody' misjudge Luke Maye's skill on the court? A gymrat, a guy whose "will exceeds his skill," as Jay Bilas used to say of Tyler Hansbrough. We know what we're talking about, right, Isaiah? "Yeah," the senior said with a smile.
And while his teammates were pleased with Maye's dunk (just his second of the season) and improved play of late, they weren't surprised. "Since last year, Luke's been killing me and Brice, being a stretch four," said Hicks. "It's hard to guard him sometimes. All it is, is his confidence. We're finally seeing it. Him stepping up, that's good for our depth."
Luke Maye's brimming confidence and basketball IQ add a dimension that this team needs as the season hits its final, difficult stretch. With Theo Pinson back in the rotation, the Tar Heels have another ball-handler and perimeter defender to help shore up the lineup after the loss of Kenny Williams. With Maye and Tony Bradley, the Tar Heels have post depth and the ability to keep scoring and rebounding when Hicks and Meeks need a break. "I just think it shows the depth of our team," Nate Britt said. "I've been preaching that all season. When one guy goes down we have people step up."
Wednesday night in Raleigh, Luke Maye stepped up. "Well, you’re lucky when you pump fake," Roy Williams said. "You teach them to pump fake when a guy is running at you, but to be able to have a clear path to the basket and dunk it. I’ve seen him dunk it before, so I don’t get that excited about dunks."
And maybe we shouldn't either. Maybe a single dunk does not a column make. But maybe it represents something more, a player stepping into his own and helping his team wherever it needs him. Luke Maye brings a workmanlike attitude to the court every night, and sometimes he'll surprise you. "I just wanted to keep playing to my strengths and do the best I could when I'm out there," he said. And that's all the Tar Heels need.