In 2015, fresh off a five-point, four-rebound performance in a blowout win, a clean-shaven Luke Maye knew he would start for the North Carolina men’s basketball team one day.
Maye sat in a cushioned stool in the back right corner of the Smith Center’s player lounge, taking questions after North Carolina’s 96-63 win over UNC-Greensboro.
Before that December night contest, Maye had only recorded 15 points and 27 rebounds in 12 games, on a 6.4 minutes-per-game average. That didn’t faze him.
“I have extreme confidence in my game …” he said. “Keep playing hard, and everything should work out for itself.”
This season, the former walk-on from Huntersville has started every game for No. 21 UNC. The 97th-ranked recruit on ESPN’s top 100 board coming out of high school is now a legitimate contender for ACC Player of the Year.
But even as a first-year — far before he stitched his name in Tar Heel basketball lore with a game-winner against Kentucky — he had all the confidence in the world that he’d eventually earn his place at North Carolina.
So, he set out to do what he’d done his entire high school basketball career. He set out to convince the world to have confidence in him.
‘Weren’t sure about him’
Jason Grube, Hough High School’s men’s basketball coach, rarely noticed a change in his senior forward’s pregame behavior. No moment was ever too big or small for Maye.
But when the Huskies traveled to the Beach Ball Classic, a prestigious Myrtle Beach winter break tournament that featured Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter (two future Duke Blue Devils) in late December of 2014, Maye rose to the occasion.
He played to earn the volume-scoring reputation that preceded him as a UNC commit.
“There was another edge to him, if that makes sense,” Grube said. “And I think it was because of the stage.”
In its first game, Hough took on Spring Valley (S.C.), led by eventual South Carolina guard P.J. Dozier. Head coach Roy Williams sat courtside and watched Maye go for 29 points and 19 rebounds in a win. Hough, whose offense ran through the 6-foot-8 stretch five, ended up finishing in fourth place at the tournament.
“There was a lot of pressure, I think,” Grube said. “I think Luke was out to show that he could play in the ACC and get that scholarship from UNC. Because they weren’t in love with Luke, Carolina wasn’t. They weren’t sure about him.”
Ever since he was a young boy, Maye had been acquainted with the Davidson basketball program. He watched games and practices. He attended Davidson head coach Bob McKillop’s basketball camp. Over the years, McKillop’s hands-on approach with his summer camps enabled him to see and take part in Maye’s maturation right before his eyes — as a player and a person.
“No one recruited him as much as I did,” McKillop said after Maye notched 24 points and 17 rebounds in North Carolina’s win over Davidson earlier this season. “You can ask him that.”
Grube, who fielded the flow of calls inquiring about his star player Maye's senior year, said Davidson more or less went all in. McKillop cooked up plans of building around the sizable shooter. He offered the story of former Wildcat Stephen Curry, a two-time MVP and NBA champion, as an example to prove how his program could be a launchpad for under-the-radar prospects.
“I’ve been doing this for so long that I always tell the kids that you gotta do what’s right for you,” Grube said. “And for some kids, it’s about the jersey. For some kids, it’s about the stats. For some kids, it’s about playing time.”
Once he realized that Maye prioritized joining North Carolina’s family above all, Grube answered questions about the impact his star player could make at the ACC level.
“The thing that people didn’t really understand was his work ethic and his desire,” the head coach said. “He just has a tremendous work ethic and a desire to be good. And those two are a good combination. But even with those two things, if he couldn’t shoot the ball, we wouldn’t be talking right now. But he could shoot the ball.
“You just didn’t know how much better he could get.”
Chip on his shoulder
Around a month after North Carolina won the 2017 national championship, Maye paid a visit to his alma mater.
He does this pretty regularly. He’s an important figure at Hough, after all. The Male Athlete of the Year Award given every year has his name attached to it. Every December, he comes back and plays in a couple of the varsity team’s practices. Two of his brothers — Beau (10th grade) and Drake (ninth grade) — act as an extension of him, playing for the Hough varsity basketball team. Cole, the fourth Maye brother and another Hough graduate, is a sophomore pitcher for the defending national champion Florida baseball team.
This particular week, Maye made a stop at his former coach’s room. Maye stepped into his class, where Grube teaches social studies, and shared the conversation he and Coach Williams had concerning his upgraded role for his junior season.
“You’re going to have to bring it,” Grube recalled saying to Maye.
And he was right. Maye was on the scouting report now. Teams started double-teaming him on the block. Williams started holding him to the team’s highest standard — where 17 points and 15 rebounds in a win over Wake Forest doesn’t necessarily mean he “played worth a darn.”
Heading into North Carolina’s home game against No. 9 Duke on Thursday, Maye is leading UNC in points (18.3), rebounds (10.3) and minutes (32.3) per game. He has 11 games of 20+ points and 12 double-doubles. He has set career highs in four of the five major stat categories, including breaking his own record for points three times this season: 26, then 28, then 32.
After the Tar Heels’ home opener this season — in direct contrast with that December night back in 2015 — reporters asked if Maye could have ever envisioned how far he’s come. They seemed focused on how much Maye has changed as a player. That step-back jumper; you weren’t doing that last year? And taking the ball coast-to-coast? When did you get that green light from Coach?
Maye answered in good spirits, even if he tried to convey that this talent isn’t brand new — that it's just shining through more profoundly because his role demands it.
He has the same unfazed confidence like he did two years ago. The same happy-to-be-here smirk that sneaks out whenever he wades into the press conference seat. The same character that prompted him to apologize to referee Mike Eades after getting upset at a call in a home game against Clemson.
And, with that, the same chip on his shoulder.
“In high school, they weren't talking about him and didn't think he was going to produce at Carolina, so he was always working towards that," Grube said. "He gets to Carolina, and they say, ‘Well, you're not going to get on the court,' so he's working toward getting on the court. He gets on the court, and they're saying, ’You're never going to be one of the best players on the team.’ And he gets to do that.”
Perhaps it’s easiest to package and deliver his story to the dumbfounded majority of college basketball fans in the phrase he wore verbatim on a black, Powerade-sponsored shirt after a career night against Boston College: "Just a Kid From Huntersville." To many, he's seen as someone who is making the most of the fortunate circumstances he was handed.
But the reality is, he’s never really questioned his worth — even when it seems like the rest of the world has.
In many respects, he’s the same player that predicted he’d eventually start at his dream school. The same person that set out to convince the world to have confidence in him.
And he is all this because he never doubted himself.