UNC’s Luke Maye is no longer under the radar

Former walk-on has become a go-to player for the Tar Heels

Tulane guard Caleb Daniels shoots as North Carolina forward Luke Maye defends in the first half Sunday at Dean E. Smith Center. (Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Sometimes it’s hard to believe what our eyes see. Maybe that’s why people still seem so amazed every time Luke Maye puts up another double-double or records another 20-plus point scoring performance.

The junior forward just doesn’t look the part of a dominant star.

“He’s not a bad athlete,” Tulane coach Mike Dunleavy said. “But he’s not a great athlete as far as some of the guys you may play.”

That hasn’t stopped Maye from averaging 21.8 points and 9.8 rebounds through his first nine games this season. Those figures rank second in the ACC behind only Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III, a five-star recruit projected to be the top overall pick in next year’s NBA draft.

Monday, the former walk-on was named the ACC’s men’s basketball Player of the Week for the second time this season.

It’s a success that should no longer come as a surprise, even though — as teammate Joel Berry pointed out — it still does to some.

“Each and every week, each and every game we get the same question over and over,” the Tar Heels captain said Sunday when asked yet again if he was surprised by the 22 points and 10 rebounds Maye put up in a win against Tulane.

“I know what Luke can do. He’s been doing it over the summer. It’s just that when you get your opportunity, he’s taken advantage of it. I’m just tired of people making it seem like it’s a surprise. He’s a good player. He’s at Carolina for a reason. It’s kind of disrespectful to him to say it’s a surprise.”

Maye, the son of former UNC quarterback Mark Maye, became a national celebrity and a UNC cult hero by hitting a game-winning buzzer-beater against Kentucky in last year’s NCAA South Region final in Memphis.

It was a shot that earned him the regional’s Most Outstanding Player award and catapulted the Tar Heels to a national championship.

But while that dramatic basket continues to be his signature moment, one that is replayed multiple times on the video board at every UNC home game, he has proven this season that he’s more than just a one-shot pony.

His all-around game is best illustrated by the fact that he’s set or tied a career high in a different statistical category in each of his last three games — field goals (11) against Michigan, rebounds (17) against Davidson and blocked shots (four) against Tulane.

“He’s done a marvelous job for us,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “I really thought he would be a good rebounder and I knew he could shoot the ball. Being able to put the ball on the floor and score around the basket is better than I really thought he was going to be.”

While Williams said he was convinced that Maye was a player who would eventually be able to make a meaningful contribution to the team, he’s not taking any credit for the 6-foot-8 Huntersville native’s rapid rise from role player to go-to guy.

“It’s not coaching,” he said. “It’s sweat. Luke Maye has been willing to put in the sweat at the level that very few players have done and it’s really helped.”

It’s helped UNC as much as it’s helped Maye.

Playing an even more expanded role than originally expected because of a preseason injury to graduate transfer wing Cameron Johnson, Maye has helped carry the Tar Heels to an 8-1 start heading into Wednesday’s home game against Western Carolina.

That team success is as much a surprise to some as Maye’s contribution to it because of the personnel UNC lost from last year’s championship squad.

It’s a hot start for which both are just now starting to be recognized. Not that Maye is all that impressed with his stats or the attention they might eventually attract.

“I think it’s important to have a positive mindset and keep in perspective that every day is a blessing,” Maye said. “We are going to play every game like it’s our last and just do whatever we can to help our team win. … It doesn’t matter what I do. I just play and want to win.”