ARIZONA BASKETBALL

Wildcats guard Caleb Love has supporters on Suns in Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant

Mar 1, 2024, 3:45 PM

Caleb Love #2 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after scoring a basket against the Florida Atlantic Ow...

Caleb Love #2 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after scoring a basket against the Florida Atlantic Owls in the second half of the Desert Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 23, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Owls defeated the Wildcats 96-95 in double overtime. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

TEMPE — Caleb Love’s arrival to the state of Arizona last year was sandwiched by two others in the Valley, a pair of highly rated acquisitions by the Phoenix Suns that happen to be fans of his game.

Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant both have their own connections to Love’s tremendous season for the Arizona Wildcats after he transferred from the North Carolina Tar Heels following three seasons there. It was one of the biggest moves of the current college basketball season.

Love is the leader in the clubhouse for Pac-12 Player of the Year and pacing the No. 6 team in America sporting a 22-6 record ahead of their final home game Saturday against the Oregon Ducks.

Beal’s connection to Love is more direct than Durant’s.

Both are from the St. Louis area and Love played for Bradley Beal Elite in eighth grade, the premier AAU basketball program for St. Louis. Love refers to Beal as one of his “big brothers” and they keep in contact through their respective seasons.

“I always have an open door policy with all my kids and he was always one of the first to really excel with our group at a young age,” Beal told Arizona Sports. “His mindset, his mentality, his humbleness was something I always admired and that’s something that always set him apart from some of the guys on the team. His trajectory is all because of his work.”

You can imagine what that means to a 22-year-old still finding his way through the basketball landscape.

“Just knowing that I can call him any time I want for any advice is a blessing,” Love told Arizona Sports. “Just seeing him grow in his career and the things that he’s accomplished. I’m happy for him. And now he’s just right down the road so it’s good.”

How about Durant admiring the way he plays?

“It means a lot, just for him to be watching me and, obviously, I watched him growing up and I love his game,” Love said.

A few of Durant’s people are from St. Louis as well, so he actually remembers seeing Love play as far back as his senior year in high school.

“Just following his game, always liked his game, wanted to see if he can grow into a pro and I think he has,” Durant told Arizona Sports. “So it’s kind of ironic that we both end up in Arizona. … It’s cool to see him out there doing thing.”

Love’s style of play and faults made him, in hindsight, an incredibly underrated transfer addition.

Despite being a high-level scorer in the ACC for the Tar Heels and displaying big-stage capabilities in the NCAA Tournament, NCAA.com had him outside the top-5 of most impactful transfers and 247Sports ranked him 16th coming into the season.

He has proved those naysayers wrong and shown he’s one of the best players in the country. There’s even a case he should be atop a re-ranking of those lists over names like Houston’s L.J. Cryer, Kansas’ Hunter Dickinson, Illinois’ Marcus Domask, Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht and UConn’s Cam Spencer. All of those names outside of Love and Knecht have a potential All-American as a partner in crime.

After shooting 36% from the field for UNC across three years, Love has bumped his field goal percentage up to 43.4% with 19.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

Playing in a balanced starting lineup and an uptempo system predicated on movement has unsurprisingly benefitted him greatly. And Love deserves a ton of credit for adapting his game.

While, yes, he will fire up a few shots a game of the heat check variety, Love’s passing didn’t get enough praise nationally during his time at UNC. He’s maintained his career mark of over three assists a game and at the same time cut down his turnovers healthily to a more manageable 1.9.

“Just his maturity,” Beal said of where he’s seen Love grow the most. “You can see the game slows down for him. It’s becoming a lot easier for him. He can really embrace being a combo guard. … College is difficult to adjust to and very systematic and it can put you in a box so to speak. Arizona’s always been a great school to let their guards be free and roam and just hoop and play basketball. It was just a perfect situation for him, especially now that he’s more mature, understands the game better and it slowed down for him.”

Love spoke on the same stuff unprompted.

“I think just us playing fast, lot of ball screens, playing free,” he said. “I think [head coach Tommy Lloyd has] done a great job with not putting a leash on us and instilling confidence into us.”

After taking in the USC-Arizona game at McKale Center last month, Durant alluded to fit, too.

“I think just him understanding the college game more, playing more games is the reason why his percentages are going up,” he said. “The difference between a good shot and a bad shot. And then you got a team out here who is a big team who passes the ball pretty well and plays defense. When you play defense, it gives you a little more room on offense so I can tell from watching Arizona that they heavily rely on penetrating, playing defense and rebounding the ball so that makes every offensive player a little bit more at ease.”

That was an interesting point from Durant, one Love co-signed.

“It locks you in a little bit more,” Love said. “It’s easier on the offensive end because you can get leakouts, fastbreaks and that’s what we do best. We get steals, we rebound and then we get off to the break and it makes us get easy shots on the offensive end.”

Arizona perhaps has the most well-rounded starting lineup in college basketball, but don’t let that dissuade you from how Love has been the man for it all year long.

The timeliness of both his playmaking and shot-making is the difference between a few Wildcat victories this year. Just on Thursday in a rivalry win over Arizona State, he drilled a 3 and helped make the defensive play to produce a turnover, the beginning of a run that would finally put away a resilient second-half Sun Devil effort. Love then knocked down his fourth triple of the night shortly after as the final dagger.

It’s hard to believe there was an outcome to this season where Love was at Michigan, the school he was originally was going to transfer to, and not as a Wildcat leading a top-10 team.

He’s developed into a well-rounded basketball player. To Beal’s point on how tricky finding the right team in college can be, Durant brought up how getting “thrown into fire” like Love was at North Carolina naturally creates a “learning period.” And that’s on top of the learning period for a young guy finding his way.

“Just the confidence and the growth off the dribble,” Durant also noted. “He could always shoot the ball and he was a scorer but I think he’s expanding his game and seeing the game differently. He can leverage his scoring for his teammates now.”

Love agrees, a good sign that he’s seeing what the two All-NBA guys are.

“I think just my overall game,” he said of his improvement. “Me, being polished as a player as a whole. Not just being a scorer. I can make plays on and off the ball, I can defend, rebound, get my teammates involved. And then my maturity. Feel like I’m older now, so I’ve been through the ups and downs of the game so I can take a bad game and not be upset about it or I can miss a few shots and still stay even-keeled. I feel like my mental has definitely grown.”

Love’s inefficiency and finding out where on the guard spectrum he lands has a fair bit to do with him not being considered a top NBA Draft prospect. ESPN currently places Love 88th on its big board.

But as Durant said as someone who knows a thing or two about basketball, he’s seen that development to someone that looks the part of a pro.

And a lot of that has to do with Love’s best skill, his confidence. In today’s world of shooting and switchability being at a premium, attributes like that often get lost in the evaluation process.

“One-hundred percent,” Beal said when asked if confidence is a skill. “It’s all about opportunity, too. I think that goes with it. As long as you’re given those chances to succeed and to possibly play through mistakes and things like that gives you even more confidence — that’s 80-90% of the battle.”

Love will make a play or two a game that will frustrate a coach who isn’t seeing the big picture, a.k.a. one that should acknowledge it comes with Love’s confidence and how he is never afraid of any moment. It’s the opposite. He wants to be in that moment. Too often you’ll see players kill a possession by passing up an opportunity to attack the basket or an open shot. It craters a lot of promising basketball careers. Love’s never going to do that.

And Lloyd has raved about how great Love has been to coach.

“What’s been so cool is how coachable he has been,” Lloyd said. “You coach him (and) not one time has he ever given me any indication with body language (or) a reaction to think that he’s not absorbing what I’m telling him. You know what the great ones do? The great ones still have enough conviction to have confidence in themselves and kind of do it their way so it’s a little bit of a ying and yang between a coach and a player, and that’s been a fun dance. I’m really proud of him and he’s a really special player.”

Projecting Love as a pro is still a bit down the road, though, and just offering the NBA perspective.

Love’s got bigger goals in the present.

“National championship. That’s all (that’s) on my mind,” he said. “I want all my teammates to succeed and get what they want out of this year. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

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