Caleb Love is averaging career highs in almost every statistical category through 15 games with Arizona. He’s shooting better than he ever has, particularly from inside the arc, and is looking like a top candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year.
His assessment of the season so far?
“I think I’m still learning,” Love said Thursday, one day after being named to the Wooden Award midseason watch list and three days after picking up the first conference player of the week honor of his career. “The system is different, but I think I’m kind of getting the hang of it just right about now.”
Love is coming off a 23-point, 6-rebound, 6-assist performance in a blowout win over Utah, one of several all-around stat lines he’s put up with Arizona. For the year he’s averaging 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals, almost all higher than in any of his three seasons at North Carolina.
The same goes for his overall 44.4 percent shooting rate, a huge jump from his previous best of 37.8. And while his 32.3 percent 3-point rate is only slightly above his career average, Love is making 55 percent from inside the arc after shooting under 40 percent from 2 at UNC.
“He continues to work on his shooting techniques and just has a better understanding of what he does better versus things he doesn’t do as well,” UA coach Tommy Lloyd said.
Labeled as a volume scorer and a jump shooter at UNC, Love has actually taken more shots from 2 than 3 his entire career. At Arizona that’s been even more pronounced, with 33.2 percent of his attempts coming at the rim according to Hoop-Math.com. He’s shooting 64.7 percent at the rim, and also has a career-best free throw attempt of 29.3 percent thanks to all the fouls he draws on drives.
“I feel like I’m a downhill player first, shooter second,” Love said. “I feel like I’m on dynamic on court in multiple ways. I can score the basketball, but also I’m an improved passer and I’m a willing passer as well.”
Love’s UNC reputation didn’t prevent him from being one of the top transfer targets last offseason, with Michigan more than happy to add his offensive arsenal to its roster. But an issue with some of Love’s credits transferring prevented that move from happening, which is when Arizona reached out.
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” Love said.
Because the coach who recruited Love to UNC (Steve Robinson) was now on the UA staff, Lloyd had an inside lane for the recruitment. That also made it easier to sell the player on his plan for how Love would fit into Arizona’s more balanced system.
“Coach Rob had recruited him to North Carolina and had a relationship with him and his family, so we were able to get to very direct conversations off the bat with him,” Lloyd said. “The things that obviously stood out to me is he was a high impact guy who just probably needed to refine a few things. And more than anything, he was open to those refinements. He wanted to make some changes, he wanted to get better. So just his open mindedness to the process was what kind of struck me. He’s literally been that every day he’s been here.”
Among those tweaks were a greater emphasis on defense and rebounding, and so far he’s grabbed at least six boards on seven occasions (compared to 13 times in 101 games at UNC) while showing flashes of being a solid on-ball defender. But maybe more than anything, Love had to be willing to pump the breaks from time to time.
A good example was in the Utah game. Love had scored 10 straight points for the UA in a span of less than two minutes midway through the second half, extending a 9-point lead into a 17-point margin. But after the Utes scored, Love launched a heat-check 3 early in the possession that was off target, and as he headed back on defense he looked over at the bench and got a “slow down” gesture from Lloyd.
“When you get in those moments, it’s not that I don’t want him to be aggressive but there’s probably a reason he got hot,” Lloyd said. “He probably had some good shots he took advantage of, probably got a few layups, probably mixed in a free throw or two. When a guy’s on a roll, I don’t think you need to double down and go all in on more difficult things. Just keep the game simple. Your teammates are good players, let’s make sure they’re getting good shots, too. You did a great job helping us get some separation. Now, if you get a great shot, by all means, let it rip that, but it doesn’t mean I need him pulling up from halfcourt just to test it.”
Love would take only one more shot the rest of the game, missing a 3, while Arizona outscored Utah the rest of the way.
“I’m grateful to have him as a coach, for him to just kind of settle me in the game, and I feel like it’s better for the team as well just not not make it all about me,” Love said.