Caleb Love says it wasn’t until he was 16 years old that he felt he had a real shot at making the NBA, but watching him play it seems like the answer should’ve been closer to eight.
Love is a 19-year-old from St. Louis, Missouri who stands at 6-foot-4. He plays with a preternatural sense of pace and grace that, it turns out, dovetails nicely with enough athleticism to allow for windmill dunks and chase-down blocks. Love admits his jumper is a work in progress, but mixtapes on Ballislife and SLAM still show a gamut of pull-ups, sidesteps and step-backs. Squint and you see shades of some of Love’s favorite players — Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant.
In interviews, he's measured and articulate. On social media, he's strictly business, with just 13 posts on his Instagram page and zero tweets to his name that don't concern basketball or, more generally, hard work.
In short, Caleb Love is ready-made. The second-best point guard and No. 14 player in the country, according to 247Sports, he has a real shot at becoming the latest name on a long list of vaunted North Carolina ball-handlers. He could also become part of a more recent trend: If he leaves for the NBA after this season — he’s projected to be a first-round pick in the 2021 draft — he’d become the third straight Tar Heel point guard to go one-and-done, following Coby White in 2018-19 and Cole Anthony this past year.
But that blue-chip status, like his smooth on-court game, obfuscates a simple fact about Caleb Love: it wasn’t that easy. He wasn’t a floor general born and bred, the kind of kid who could always pick apart full-court presses and throw crosscourt bounce passes just because he felt like it. He didn’t always have the skills — or desire — to be a point guard. But he had something that ultimately superseded that.
“He just had a drive in him that made him want to win,” Justin Tatum, his high school coach, said. “Once I saw that, I knew he was going to be special.”
Making the switch
Growing up, Love’s first inclination when he got the basketball was to score. And then score some more. And maybe, if he felt like it, he’d score a little bit on top of that, just for good measure. According to Tatum — father of Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum — Love was a stellar combo guard, a guy who could put the ball in the hole pretty much whenever he wanted.
But that wasn’t good enough.
“I never looked at Caleb as a true point guard when he got here,” Tatum said. “He didn’t have the patience to get everything set up and get his teammates involved at that time.”
Caleb’s dad, Dennis, had always prodded him to commit to playing the 1, but Caleb balked. Scoring was what he knew. And he knew it well: as a junior, he led Christian Brothers College High School to the state finals while averaging 19.4 points per game. Still, there was a moment where he realized there was something untapped in his game — another level to unlock, another dimension to reach.
So, the summer before his senior year, he ran the point exclusively for the first time in his life, playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League. He started watching film of the best college and NBA lead guards — Joel Berry II and White included — and soaking up the intricacies of the position. And then Love played at a USA Basketball minicamp for high schoolers, where he took it upon himself, in his own words, to start “cooking everybody.”
“I think that was the biggest thing for me, making that position change,” he said. “Because in the league, I’m going to be a point guard — I’m only 6-foot-4. Growing up I never wanted to be a point guard because I just wanted to score the ball, but I had to see the bigger picture.”
By the time his senior year started, Love was a top-25 player in the country, a far cry from the No. 126 ranking he held a year and a half prior. The blue bloods had already come knocking: Kansas, Arizona, Duke, North Carolina — the last of which was always Dennis’ favorite school. But what was it, exactly, that appealed to Caleb about Roy Williams’ program?
“He asked me if I was a winner,” Love said. “If I came here, would I win him a national championship? I told him that’s what I’m going to try to do, to the best of my abilities.”
Next in a long line
It’s something Love says he thinks about “all the time”: the procession that stretches from Phil Ford to Ty Lawson, the record books with name like Kenny Smith and Ed Cota, the No. 2 argyle jersey that once belonged to Raymond Felton and Berry II and — starting with Wednesday’s season opener against College of Charleston — will officially be his to wear.
In a long line of great Tar Heel floor generals, Love is the latest, the next one with a shot to enter the upper echelon of UNC lore. To do so, he’ll have to strike the delicate balance required of every immensely talented point guard: when to shoot and when to pass, when to take charge and when to defer. It’s a juggling act that plenty before him have fumbled.
On the precipice of his first and maybe only year in Chapel Hill, Love will have to show he is, upon further inspection, a point guard through and through. If the Tar Heels reach their potential this season — which is massive — it’ll be because of their lead ball-handler, who has to prove he’s capable of playing the game he’s known his whole life in a way that’s still more than a little new to him.
It helps that Love has people like White, who he says he talks to constantly, in his corner. Then there’s Jayson Tatum, who’s “like a big brother,” and Bradley Beal — both NBA superstars from his hometown of St. Louis — to give him pointers. And, of course, Williams.
“I do believe he looks to pass and understands that’s part of the role,” the UNC head coach said. “But if I had to put him in a Kendall Marshall category or a Ty Lawson category, it’d be a more aggressive role scoring the ball. That’s who he’ll be.”
Basically, Love’s consiglieres have all stressed the same thing: Be yourself. Yes, you’re running the show at one of the college basketball’s premiere programs and yes, you’re surrounded by as much concentrated athletic talent as any other place in the country. But you’re still Caleb Love, the guy who can get a bucket at will and turn the Dean Dome into a one-man show if need be.
And if that ball-handling balancing act presents a problem for Love himself — well, he doesn’t show it.
“It took me a minute to actually get the hang of it,” Love said. “But I’m here now.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.