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Column: Grading UNC basketball's six scholarship first-years midway through ACC play

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UNC first year guard RJ Davis (4) prepares to take a shot in the Smith Center during a game against NC State on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. UNC beat NC State 86-76.

With the offseason shortened due to COVID-19, first-years across college basketball have been thrown directly into the fire. This year more than any, expect major leaps in production and efficiency as the season goes on. 

UNC's six first-years on scholarship are in that learning process right now and have continued to develop as they further entrench themselves in head coach Roy Williams' system. 

As the Tar Heels enter the midway point of league play, here are some grades for how UNC's first-years are living up to expectations so far:

Kerwin Walton

Walton has made a splash as a Tar Heel and has been the most unexpected difference maker in the 2020 class. The guard has solidified his role in the starting lineup as UNC's only reliable outside shooter, recording a 41.7 percent mark from deep. Walton's abilities as a catch-and-shoot option have created space all season.

Moving forward, the guard has room to grow in his ability to create his own shots and start making more contested jumpers, but his game mimics that of another guard with the initials K.W. who donned No. 24: Kenny Williams.

Grade: A-

Caleb Love

Love had early struggles with shot selection and turnovers. The guard shot at or below 30 percent for six games straight mid-season. His 3-point efficiency of 22.7 percent is even worse. Love also has 50 turnovers in 16 games but looks like he is turning a corner.

Against Wake Forest, he tallied a career-high 20 points while shooting 57.1 percent from the field. Love has dished out five assists in each of his last two outings, and Williams said the guard has the potential to be one of the best defensive players on the team. It hasn't been perfect, but the first-year has started to adjust to UNC's point guard-reliant system. 

Grade: C+ (But improving)

RJ Davis 

Davis had similar struggles to Love early in the season. The first-year’s shot selection and ball security could have been better — Davis has seven games shooting below 30 percent from the floor.

But like Love, he is definitely starting to settle into the Tar Heel offense, averaging over nine points a game, including a season-high 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting against Florida State. That game was the start of a three-game stretch shooting above 50 percent. 

Grade: B

Day’Ron Sharpe 

Sharpe is an important member of the elite trio that makes up UNC’s frontcourt and has made an impact as the relief guy. The forward averages over nine points and seven rebounds per game but has proven he can pop off in either category, recording season-highs of 25 points and 16 rebounds against Notre Dame and Miami, respectively.

Sharpe also makes an impact on defense with his ability protect the rim. It's hard to think of ways that Sharpe can improve, but upping his 57.7 percent clip from the charity stripe would make him even better.

Grade: A

Walker Kessler 

It's hard to get minutes as any first-year, but it's even harder competing for time in a frontcourt as crowded as the one in Chapel Hill. Still, there's no doubt the 7-foot-1 center has flashed potential. 

Even with the limited playing time, the first-year had key defensive minutes in the first meeting with N.C. State, tallying three blocks. Kessler has used his length to his advantage on the defensive end, maintaining himself as a key role player for UNC off the bench.

Grade: B-

Puff Johnson

Johnson was already playing limited minutes, but he's missed the last two games due to a toe injury. His season high in minutes played is just 10, but he's been an effective offensive option when he's been on the court, shooting 6-14 from the field.

When he returns, he will be an option at the end of the rotation due to his clean stroke from mid-range. While Johnson has looked solid in limited minutes, he hasn't fully developed a role in just his first year at UNC. 

Grade: Too early to tell.

@MaryMacPorter1

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com