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Left Out Again

Mizzou and Caleb Love were just never meant to be, I guess.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Second Round - North Carolina vs Boston College Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

What a long strange trip it’s been. Yesterday, Caleb Love committed to play basketball at the University of Michigan next season.

The move was surprising, mostly because the momentum for days seemed to all point to Love ending up at Missouri. We had heard whispers that he and his family wanted to get him back closer to home, and specifically were interested in coming back to Mizzou. The Tigers had come a very close second to North Carolina the first time around. But the one major difference between now and three years ago, was the relationship at Missouri was with the previous Coaching staff.

More pixels have been spilled talking about Caleb Love than nearly any basketball prospect who didn’t end up choosing Missouri, and maybe even most who did. Love was the one who got away. The previous staff did everything right with Love; they pursued him early, made him feel like he was at home in Columbia. They stayed on him even as his recruiting ranking rose up the charts. They were able to fight off schools like Arizona, Louisville, Indiana, and others. They made the final 2, but in the end the bluest of blue bloods North Carolina Tar Heels were too much to turn down for Love and he picked UNC.

Cuonzo Martin and his staff first offered Love on April 25th, 2018. The next day I wrote this about the then-CBC Sophomore:

If I were Cuonzo Martin and staff I’d have sent out this offer to Caleb Love months ago. I love this kid and his game. I’ve said, ever so eloquently, that his game has a level of “F*** YOU” to it, and it’s splendid to watch.

Love is a 6’3 combo guard from CBC in St. Louis who is more than comfortable as a point guard. He’s currently rated 128th by 247sports. Let’s just say I disagree with that ranking. He’s 83rd at Rivals, which feels better, but I have a hard time imagining there are 60 better players in the country than Caleb Love.

Call me biased because he’s another St. Louis kid, but Love is for real, and I watched him go toe-to-toe against Courtney Ramey in the State Sectionals to the tune of 37 points. He nearly willed his undermanned squad to a win over the heavily favored Statesmen.

This is a kid I want in my corner, and he’ll be a supreme and primary target for Martin and his staff.

If you read my Pourover piece from Sunday, you know that I’m still very much a believer in Love’s talent. He’s a smart kid (I guess young man now), a super competitor, and I think a change of scenery will do him some good. But I’m not sure this was a smart prudent move.

Much is often made about what players think they need to get to the NBA. And most of those players are often way wrong about those perceptions. Recently, Love alluded to wanting to play the point guard more, to have the ball in his hands more. But NBA teams weren’t leery because Hubert Davis played him off the ball in Chapel Hill. And they certainly didn’t think he was deprived of opportunities to get shots up.

If anything, they wanted him trim calories.

Love has been a woefully inefficient player for the bulk of his three seasons at UNC. The NBA wants offensive efficiency and defensive reliability. If you look at the top of draft boards, it’s packed with guys who have a LOAD of talent, typically guys who have a ceiling to be a superstar. But once you get past the top five or six picks, most teams are looking for the right piece to plug in. A piece they can get good years out of and be solid rotationally.

That doesn’t sound exciting, but the Chicago Bulls are currently in the back end of the playoff hunt at 10th in the Eastern Conference, and they selected Dalen Terry 18th in the draft last year. He signed a four-year contract for $15.4 million. In his first year he’s averaging five minutes a game. As a sophomore at Arizona, Terry had a usage rate of 15.2% but an offensive rating of 121.0 and shot 36.4% from three. That’s projectable.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Or look at Tre Mann, the 18th pick in the 2021 draft. He’s played 17.1 minutes per game and scored 7.5 points per game. He’s on a four-year, $14 million deal. As a sophomore at Florida, Mann was higher usage, around 25% but he shot over 40% from three and had a 53.6 effective field-goal percentage. Mann is a solid comp to Love. He was very inefficient as a freshman, but took a jump as a sophomore and became a top-20 pick. That top 20 pick is a rotational player two years later.

Love wasn’t projected to be picked anywhere near that high when he was on draft boards. The bank was coming back to get back onto draft boards, it’s not to become a lottery pick. That ship has sailed. But getting back into the draft conversation is attainable — if you show the right things. And what he doesn’t need to show is that he’s a ball handler and a guy who can take a lot of shots.

Can Caleb shoot reliably enough to space the floor? Can he be steady defensively? And when he does drive the ball, can he be a smart passer against a defense in rotation? That’s it. That’s the job description. Oh, and finding ways to coexist with other absurdly talented dudes who’ve accepted that earning a paycheck means becoming a specialist.

Positions are mostly gone, there aren’t really any point guards in the NBA any more. Instead, tasks are spread around a lineup. Steph Curry is listed as a point guard and he is on the smaller side for an NBA player and dribbles the ball some, but he’s not a guy who impacts the game by getting the ball in his hands and breaking down defenses. If you’re on the smaller side, you’ll probably bring the ball up more than others, but that’s not the job any more. Giannis Atetokounmpo brings the ball up regularly. Luka Dončić is listed as a point guard, he’s 6’7” and 230 pounds. My point is everyone in the NBA (pretty much) can dribble the ball up the floor. It’s what you do when you get into your offensive sets, and how you play off those sets.

I’ll always wish the best for Caleb. I still believe in his talent. I liked the match for him with Dennis Gates. The system he would be in, the types of shots he would be taking, and the development could be the right mixture to get Love back onto draft boards.

Moving to Michigan? I don’t know. Juwan Howard’s offense does use an assortment of zoom actions, dribble-handoffs, and step-up ball screens. It’ll position Love to attack and put the ball in his hands. But here’s the thing: UNC’s offense used many of the same tricks. All that’s changed is the Wolverines are losing two perimeter threats in Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin. And with Hunter Dickinson in the portal, Love won’t have share touches with another dominant big man.

In other words, nothing is standing between Love and plenty of shots. But, again, was that really the core issue?

Howard has had success in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines made an Elite 8 in 2021 and the Sweet 16 in 2022 (as an 11 seed). But John Beilein’s players are gone, and the Wolverines have underwhelmed now for two years in a row. Howard’s taking a risk here, too. But plenty of talent has come through the program recently, and results have steadily gotten worse.

I hope it works out for Caleb, but I don’t think this is the best fit for him and what he wants to get to the next level.

As for Mizzou? They’ll move on. There are a lot of other targets left on the board, and the two most important pieces for success next year were on the roster next year. We wait to see what Isiaih Mosley and Kobe Brown will do. And we wait to see who else hits campus from the portal.