Five-star combo guards Love, Kelly dealing with steep point guard learning curves

By R.L. Bynum

Anybody who has followed North Carolina’s men’s and women’s basketball teams closely has noticed some striking similarities in young talent and struggles early in the season.

Both programs are trying to move past frustrating seasons, and are doing so with highly touted freshman classes that they hope can blend in well with experienced players.

For the men, the experienced players starting are returnees Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Leaky Black. For the women, starting along with the team’s main seasoned returnee in Janelle Bailey are a pair of graduate transfers in Petra Holešínská (who played last season at Illinois) and Stephanie Watts (who returned to UNC after a season at USC mostly lost to injury.)

— N.C. Central (1–2) at UNC men (3–2), 2 p.m. Saturday (regional sports networks)
— UNC women (5–1, 0–1) at Miami, 2 p.m. Monday (ACC Network)

At no position are the similarities more striking than at point guard, where five-star players Caleb Love and Deja Kelly have both shown that they have plenty of talent and potential. But both are more combo guards and have discovered that, as the competition gets tougher, the learning curve for a freshman point guard can become daunting in a hurry.

Both have had impressive games. Love, from St. Louis, has scored in double figures in three of five games and Kelly, from San Antonio, has done so in four of six games. 

Point guard Deja Kelly is averaging 11.7 points per game and has as many turnovers (15) as assists through six games. She only had three turnovers in the first four games.

The assist-to-turnover ratio in recent games has been a different story.

Love has eight assists and 13 turnovers in the last three games. Kelly has three assists and 12 turnovers in the last two games, and that came after committing only three turnovers in the first four games against weaker competition.

Love’s issues on defense were evident in the loss at Iowa.

In the men’s loss at Iowa, Love was up against redshirt junior Connor McCaffery after dealing with senior Matt Coleman III in the Texas loss. In the women’s loss at Wake Forest, Kelly faced senior point guard Gina Conti after going up against junior Charlotte point guard Jada McMillian.

Both will get better, but there will likely be more rough games as they learn how to run the offense at the major college level.

While Kelly has a veteran in Watts to start next to her in the backcourt, Love starts with fellow freshman RJ Davis, who also gets time at point guard.

“You’ve just got to make better decisions,” Coach Roy Williams said after the Iowa game. “Make the easiest play you can make. And I think if you continue to make the easy play and then the next easy play, then the third time you do that, it’s gonna lead you to a direct layup, so you can’t talk about them being freshmen anymore. I think you’ve got to stop turning the ball over. Probably, of all the things, turnovers have been the biggest thing. It’s been a negative force.”

The No. 16-ranked men’s team (3–2) turned the ball over 14 times in its 69–67 loss to Texas and 18 times in a 93–80 loss at Iowa.   

Courtney Banghart’s women’s team (5–1, 0–1 ACC) has turned the ball over 15 times in each of the last three games, a 98–28 win over South Carolina State, an 81–75 win over Charlotte and Thursday’s 57–54 loss at Wake Forest.

In UNC’s loss to the Demon Deacons, the Tar Heels played terrific defense for most of the game as the Deacons shot 35% from the floor and 9.5% from 3-point range. Bad shooting on the part of UNC (34.8% and 11.1%) was made worse by the turnovers.

With that sort of defensive effort, Banghart said that “you should win that game, but not if you’re going to settle for 15 turnovers, many of whom were in the hands of our people who shouldn’t turn it over. And we settled for so many shots.”

As both Love and Kelly have struggled with sloppy play, they’ve also had difficulty with their shots in the past two games: Love is 6 of 26 from the floor and 1 of 8 from 3-point range, and Kelly is 5 for 22 from the floor and 2 for 10 from 3-point range.

Both are going to have terrific Carolina careers, with Kelly’s likely being much longer than Love’s. Despite what Williams might tell you, they’re still freshmen and are going to make mistakes, particularly against more experienced competition.

There is plenty of other freshman talent on both teams to mesh with the experienced players.

For the men, in addition to Love and Davis, UNC has Puff Johnson and Kerwin Walton to come off the bench at the wing and Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler in the frontcourt.

For the women, dynamic guard Kennedy Todd-Williams started the first four games and came an assist away from the program’s first triple-double against South Carolina State. Against Wake Forest, though, she missed all three shots and scored a career-low two points.

In addition to Kelly and Todd-Williams, Anya Poole has started the last two games at forward and Alyssa Ustby has been a versatile player off the bench. They also have freshman forward Alexandra Zelaya, who didn’t play against Wake Forest.

“We know what we need to work on,” Poole said after collecting 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Deacons for her first career double-double. “We know what we lacked in this game. We’re going to go into practice tomorrow and have our thinking caps on and be positive instead of negative about the situation. Yeah, we lost. Yeah, we did things wrong. But what are we going to do to fix it?”

Carolina’s women visit Miami at 2 p.m. Monday (ACC Network) after their Sunday visit to No. 2-ranked Louisville on Sunday was postponed because of COVID-19 issues in the Louisville program. The Tar Heels then play at home against Syracuse at 8 p.m. Thursday (ACC Network).

The men get a game to work out their issues at 2 p.m. Saturday at home against N.C. Central (regional sports networks) before facing Ohio State in Cleveland at about 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 19 in the second game of the CBS Sports Classic.

Both should be able to do some damage in the ACC and have their games together by mid-January. Between now and then, though, there likely will be some more speed bumps along the way as the young players continue to learn.

Love photo from pool; Kelly photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communication

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