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Wednesday December 7th

With expanded role, RJ Davis looks to take UNC offense to new heights

UNC sophomore guard RJ Davis (4) drives to the paint during the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament against UCLA in Philadelphia, Penn., on Friday, March 25, 2022.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore guard RJ Davis (4) drives to the paint during the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament against UCLA in Philadelphia, Penn., on Friday, March 25, 2022.

For one and a half seasons, RJ Davis waited his turn. 

In a recruiting class with two physically imposing frontcourt players and an uber-athletic guard filling out the starting backcourt, not even the prolific career at New York's Archbishop Stepinac High School could elevate the status of the 6-foot guard. Although he showed his flashes – including a 26-point eruption to avoid an early-season upset against Brown – Davis mostly resorted to off-ball duties, which left high-volume guard Caleb Love to take charge. 

But as UNC quickly learned throughout its postseason run, using Davis as a creator raised the offense to another level.

In key NCAA Tournament victories over Baylor and Duke, the Tar Heels put the ball in the hands of their best playmaker, who found ways to both set up his teammates and get buckets on his own. With the Tar Heels entering the year hoping to get back to the national championship game – and this time, finish the job – Davis is looking to thrive with more on-the-ball responsibilities as the team’s starting point guard.

“My confidence is through the roof right now,” Davis said at the ACC Tipoff event in October. “I’ve been working on the consistency in my jump shot and being the leader this team needs – just a natural point guard.”

After an up-and-down first season, Davis was a valuable asset in his second year, which led to him mulling professional options. When he announced his return, head coach Hubert Davis understood the importance of having him in the lineup. 

“RJ is Carolina basketball,” Davis said in a statement after the return. “He’s one of the best players in the country on the court, in the classroom and in the community.” 

RJ Davis improved in multiple statistical categories in his sophomore year, including points, assists and field-goal percentage. But despite the upticks, there was still an interesting caveat to his performance – his usage rate actually decreased from 22.0 to 20.5, meaning he actually had less offensive responsibility during his time on the floor.

When the team entered the NCAA Tournament, Davis was given more control of the offense, which resulted in his assist rate jumping from 3.4 assists per game to a more impressive 5.0 mark through the Tar Heels’ six tournament games. In the team’s opening-round win over Marquette, Davis recorded a career-high 12 assists in UNC’s 95-point outing.

As the tournament continued, Hubert Davis showed a tendency to play the hot hand between his starting backcourt. Considering the end results, such a strategy is likely to continue.

Weeks after RJ Davis minimized the damage of a first-half Duke spurt in Durham with an array of tough isolation baskets while Love was shooting just 1-9 from the field, the versatile scoring attack continued against Baylor. Davis scored a career-high 30 points to help the Tar Heels upset the top-seeded Bears in the second round, while Love was the one that caught fire with 27 points in the second half against UCLA to help the team advance. 

While this unpredictable rotation might cause some players to feel unsettled in a particular role, Love knows that Davis’ offensive skillset benefited both sides.

"We've been in so many situations, so to bring the team together, that's our job," Love said. "We've basically got to run the show."

Even with all the improvement Davis has shown, the junior guard still understands where he can improve.

After being a primary scorer in the national semifinal, Davis lost momentum in the national title game, where he was held shot 5-17 from the floor and failed to record a 3-pointer.

In his revamped role, where he is looking to lead the UNC offense to new heights, Davis has only one mission on his mind.

“You remember that feeling at the national championship stage, walking down the steps, seeing the confetti drop,” Davis said. “My head was down a little bit, but it was also lifted up knowing that I’m gonna be back here again.”  

@hunternelson_1 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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