But then again, so did his last-year counterparts. Maye, Williams and Johnson make up one of the most underrated out-of-high-school Tar Heel classes in recent memory.
Each of the three has their own, separate, unconventional story for how they were brought to where they are now — and, in effect, the different paths they took to grow into leaders of this team may very well be how they're remembered.
"We weren't really highly touted," Williams said. "Every day we came in and we worked on our game. I think that attitude and that mood will be our legacy."
Johnson said he didn’t know what to expect when transferring into UNC.
“Changing schools midway through my career, I didn’t know exactly how it would go down, or how people would take it,” he said.
Williams and Maye, who’d been at UNC for their first two years, didn’t know what to expect, either. Johnson’s arrival happened at the same time as the departure of 2017 ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson — Williams and Maye’s roommate for their first two years.
And so while Tar Heel fans discussed whether Johnson was fit to replace Jackson on the court, Williams and Maye thought about how he would fit into their living situation.
“Justin kind of kept us together because he was able to relate to both of us,” Maye said. “And I think with Cam coming in, we were kind of wondering because everyone was comparing him to Justin and (saw him) kind of replacing Justin.”
By virtue of their respective non-traditional paths, the three quickly found common ground — just like Maye and Williams did in their first two years together.
Maye, after all, wasn’t even on scholarship when he agreed to be a Tar Heel. Williams, after de-committing from Virginia Commonwealth months before his first year started, didn’t decide to come to UNC until May 2015.
“We were pretty much going through the same thing,” Williams said.
Maye’s path, for one, can be justified in the small moments — like when he met with Roy Williams his first year and told the Hall of Fame head coach that “no one was going to outwork him.”
Or like when he, in the hallway after a home game, saw Roy Williams talking to his father: “I remember pulling Mark (Maye) over to the side and said, ‘Please don’t be in a rush,’” Roy Williams recalled. “‘He’s got a chance. I really believe he has a chance.’”
Kenny Williams’s path wasn’t as ostensibly simple, but it took the same trajectory. As a 3-point specialist, Williams only hit one three his entire first year. His sophomore year, just as he was beginning to break out, he injured his knee.
Maye was there to offer him support.
“When I went down my sophomore year, he was there supporting me,” the senior guard said. “He came to the hospital after my surgery.”
It was then, later that year, that Maye etched his name in Tar Heel lore with a game-winning shot against Kentucky to send UNC to the Final Four. Kenny Williams, who saw it happen from the sideline, calls that “one of the top-5 moments” of his time at UNC.
Fast forward another two years, just days before No. 3 North Carolina faces No. 4 Duke, and the three former under-the-radar prospects are now the leaders of this Tar Heel team.
It’s a lot to take in. The three have been absorbing the moment differently.
Kenny Williams has been thinking about what he is going to say in his senior speech after his final home game. He doesn’t want to forget to thank anybody who pushed him to this point.
Maye, when asked by his mom if he was going to be emotional Saturday night, said he couldn’t predict how he’d feel.
And Johnson, as he stood at the Smith Center’s center court on Wednesday night, had it hit him all at once — how his journey unfolded, how his teammates embraced him, how he and his two senior teammates may be remembered.
“I just kind of looked around,” Johnson recalled from Wednesday night, standing in the Smith Center. “I gave myself a couple of minutes to let it soak in that I only have one more left in there.”
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