By Adam Lucas
Late in the summer, most of the Tar Heels were preparing for a late afternoon pickup game. On one of the Smith Center side baskets, Kenny Williams and Luke Maye were firing jumpers while they waited for the action to begin.
A well-informed observer nudged his companion. “Those two guys,” he said, “have been here every single day.”
Williams and Maye are sophomores, so it’s partially the duty of the younger players to have perfect attendance, even at optional pickup games. Miss a day, you might fall behind. And that’s a chance the duo weren’t willing to take.
“Being in the gym and being around my teammates is good for two reasons,” Williams says. “Number one, it’s good for chemistry. And number two, it means you’re continuing to work on your game. Coach Williams always emphasizes putting in the sweat. My main thing is you can’t improve unless you are in the gym and doing what you need to do.”
According to their teammates, both sophomores have made noticeable improvements. It starts with benefiting from a full year of exposure to Jonas Sahratian and Carolina’s strength and conditioning program. Before this summer, Roy Williams challenged Kenny Williams to be better prepared for the physical nature of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. After fully recovering from postseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus, Kenny Williams says he’s felt 100 percent since June.
Maye, meanwhile, has been a conditioning standout from the day arrived in Chapel Hill, and worked this summer to add some weight for battles under the rim. The added muscle should make him an even more effective rebounder, an area where his teammates constantly marvel at his ability.
“Luke is relentless on the backboards,” his classmate says. “He amazes me sometimes how he gets the ball and finishes under the rim after he gets an offensive rebound. When we play pickup, someone thinks they have the rebound and Luke comes out of nowhere to get it. I’m like, ‘How did he do that?’ He has a knack for going to get the ball.”
In what was admittedly a much smaller sample size, Maye’s rebound per minute numbers were very close to those of Brice Johnson, who led the team in the category. Maye’s offensive rebound per minute numbers were even better than Johnson’s.
“Ever since I was younger, my dad has told me I’ve always had a knack for rebounding,” Maye says. “It’s something I worked on a lot with my dad (former Tar Heel quarterback Mark Maye) throughout my high school career. I know I’m not the most athletic or the tallest guy, but I know I can outwork other players. I was taught many years ago to read how a player releases the ball when he shoots it. That’s what I try to do every time the ball is shot.”
Although Maye himself has a sneakily accurate perimeter jumper, many of those 2016-17 jumpers are likely to come from Williams. As a freshman, he memorably did not make a three-pointer during the regular season—but then promptly drained a clutch trifecta against Pitt in the ACC Tournament during perhaps his best minutes of the season.
Williams admits his confidence wavered at points as a freshman. But unlike some freshmen who see their confidence plummet in direct relationship to their minutes, the Virginia native says the support of his teammates and coaches actually boosted his confidence as the postseason approached.
He especially benefited from the wisdom of assistant coach Hubert Davis, who is best-known as the third-most accurate three-point shooter (44.1 percent) in NBA history. What most people don’t know—including Kenny Williams, until talking to Davis—is that Davis made just four of his 13 three-point shots as a Carolina freshman.
“That really helped me relate to him,” Williams says. “He knows what I was going through, and he helped me know how I could get through it.
“This summer, we’ve talked about taking my thumb off the ball and getting the correct rotation with my off hand. We’ve been emphasizing the correct arc, and making sure it’s not hitting the front rim.”
What Davis knows, and what both Maye and Williams have heard at various points during the summer, is that Dean Smith believed—and Roy Williams has occasionally repeated—that the most player improvement comes between the freshman and sophomore seasons.
“After your freshman year you’ve been through it and you know what to expect,” Maye says. “You know what’s demanded of you and how to practice every day. Having that knowledge really helps a player grow. I’m looking forward to this year because I’m ready to step up.”