What we're hearing about North Carolina's offseason and the crucial Caleb Love question

What we’re hearing about North Carolina’s offseason and the crucial Caleb Love question

CHAPEL HILL, NC — For as hectic as North Carolina’s offseason was a year ago — Roy Williams’ abrupt retirement, Hubert Davis’ promotion, swapping out three big men for another trio in the transfer portal — this spring has been comparatively tame. And after a surprise run to the national championship game, that’s probably for the best.

We already know that Leaky Black and Armando Bacot, two of Davis’ every-game starters in his inaugural season, are returning to Chapel Hill next season. We’ll get some specifics as to why they did, according to several UNC and outside sources, in a second. But first, the more pressing — and only outstanding — question on the roster: Will Caleb Love be back?

As of Wednesday afternoon, sources tell The Athletic, Love is still genuinely torn about what to do. On one hand, as a source put it, “Caleb has always wanted to be a pro.” Which makes sense; Love arrived at UNC as a five-star prospect with one-and-done expectations, and still has (well-founded) NBA ambitions. But what is Love’s professional market right now? That’s part of what he and his family are trying to suss, people close to the situation say. One NBA scout told The Athletic this week Love “absolutely” would be drafted if he declared, while another was more hesitant and postured that a mid-second round selection was likely Love’s draft-day ceiling.

This comes after a season in which Love’s production surged, with the sophomore guard averaging 15.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 36 percent from 3 and 86.3 percent from the free-throw line. “I believe in his shooting,” one scout said, while adding that the biggest thing Love still needs to work on is his shot selection. Multiple NBA sources agreed that Love stood to boost his professional stock by coming back and showing that improvement, as well as more strides defensively. One compared Love’s path, should he return, to that of Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. and Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji, both of whom are now expected to become first-rounders.

But that isn’t the only argument for Love coming back. While boosting his stock is one reason, the benefits of a return to UNC are clear. Love would be returning to the national runner-up, with as good a chance as any to win a championship. Additionally — and especially on the heels of a deep postseason run — Love stands to benefit as much as anyone on the roster from NIL partnerships, like the one he already has with Outback Steakhouse. All that, and the uncertainty surrounding his professional stock, makes for a compelling case to return.

A UNC source said that Love hasn’t told the program when he’ll decide, but there’s a looming deadline: Sunday at 11:59 PM, the latest prospects can enter the draft early.

Outside of Love, there’s little left up in the air for the Tar Heels — but that’s not a bad thing. Black and Bacot’s quick announcements that they’d be returning removed much of the potential drama from this offseason. And according to multiple sources, the Tar Heels are not expecting any other players to enter the transfer portal at this time. Players have until May 1 to enter the portal and still be eligible next season, but all indications from postseason meetings with Davis and his staff were that the rest of the roster would remain intact. Only Dawson Garcia (Minnesota) and Anthony Harris (undecided) have entered the transfer portal since season’s end, but neither player finished the season with the team, either. (Garcia, who has already transferred once, is expected to petition the NCAA for a hardship waiver, given the family illnesses at home that contributed to why he left the program.) Graduate forward Brady Manek is out of eligibility.

With the rest of the roster set — at least, for now — sources say North Carolina has not yet reached out to any players in the transfer portal. Translation: Those rumors about Iowa State’s Tyrese Hunter or Memphis’ Emoni Bates? They’re just that, and nothing more. Should Love ultimately leave, obviously the Tar Heels would look to bolster their rotation in the portal, but with the program otherwise capped out on scholarships, retaining Love remains the priority.

Back to Black and Bacot’s decisions: Neither was tough to come by. For Black, taking advantage of his extra COVID-19 year of eligibility means 1) his family in Concord, about two hours away, can continue to watch him play for another season; and 2) he gets to continue his education, something his mother (as a principal) and family at large really value. As for Bacot, people close to the situation indicate his decision was also multi-faceted … but follows much of the same thought process as Love is currently experiencing. Bacot understands, according to a source, that he sits in “the in-between spot” of the draft, where there’s no guarantee he would be selected; multiple NBA sources told The Athletic they didn’t anticipate Bacot being picked had he declared. On the other hand, Bacot is well-positioned to do something a source described as important to the rising senior: “leaving a legacy.” Barring injury, Bacot is on pace to become UNC’s all-time rebound leader, and he should be a preseason All-American. Additionally, he can continue earning serious revenue via NIL, like his current deals with Jimmy’s Seafood and Town Hall Burger & Beer, while working towards his degree from the prestigious Kenan-Flagler Business School. It doesn’t hurt, either, that any NIL earnings Bacot sees would almost definitely outpace G League or overseas wages.

So what else is left for UNC fans to wonder about? How about one more potential positive stemming from this season’s Final Four run: landing 2023 five-star prospect GG Jackson.

Jackson — the No. 8 player in the class, per the 247Sports Composite — is a versatile 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward who would become the highest-rated recruit in the Davis era. According to multiple people close to the situation, the Tar Heels are well-situated to land the South Carolina native. Jackson would team with fellow 2023 five-star and UNC verbal commit Simeon Wilcher, a 6-4 combo guard, to give the program its best recruiting class since 2020 … with more recruits potentially to come.

(Photo of Caleb Love: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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