Is anyone else catching the fever?
The summer to forget is mostly behind us now, and the focus has finally switched to North Carolina basketball. Over the last couple of weeks, media sessions have offered a glimpse into the Tar Heels' offseason and, most recently, practice.
Yes, we're talking about practice.
At this time of year, even practice is a riveting discussion. Especially when UNC's season is riding on the development of essentially every player on the roster.
Knowing Tar Heel fans are thirsty for info, I've compiled five takeaways from the start of practice.
Just when you think the Tar Heels have a clear-cut center in sophomore Joel James, some freshman comes in and shakes it all up.
“I think we want it to be Joel,” Marcus Paige told ESPN before practices began. “Physically, he’s a monster—a beast. His potential is through the roof. He’s starting to get the mental aspect.”
I say that with less confidence now just because I’ve seen how much Kennedy [Meeks] has improved. Joel still looks a lot better than he did last year and like someone that could play the center spot for starter’s minutes, but I’m just not sure at this point. It’s 50-50 in my eyes.
Fellow sophomore Brice Johnson agreed.
“Yeah, it is about 50-50,” Johnson said. “They’re both doing some great things and having good practices. Somebody just has to get that edge at the end of the day.”
It's been a long summer for freshman Kennedy Meeks. He stepped on campus weighing a robust 317 pounds. With the help of strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian, he has whittled down to an impressive 281.
As expected, that weight loss has had a massive impact on his play. His endurance still isn't quite there, but he's running well according to his teammates. He's also scoring down low, which is probably the biggest factor in Coach Williams' decision.
“He uses his body well and he’s a lot better scorer than I saw this summer," Paige told reporters. "That was a pleasant surprise to see him be so effective on the low block.”
So, how long until we know, Coach?
"I think that that’s going to be not just a couple of days," Williams told the media, courtesy of Inside Carolina. "It’ll be a couple of weeks and maybe even longer."
When Roy Williams was recruiting Marcus Paige, he wasn't expecting the freshman to have to start. Rather, he was hoping Marcus Paige would get to learn from Kendall Marshall and occasionally join the game for some dual-point action.
Those dreams were flushed down the pipe when Marshall left early for the NBA.
Williams kept hope alive. He desperately wanted to relive the 2001-02 season at Kansas, when he led the Jayhawks to a Final Four using two point guards. That season, they led the country in points (90.9), assists (21.3), field-goal percentage (51.1) and, yes, even rebounds (43.9).
Apparently, he shared the same thoughts with Nate Britt during his recruitment. Here is what he told ESPN's Dave Telep after committing in 2011:
The thing I look forward to the most is probably playing with Marcus Paige. I feel like us two in the backcourt together could be great. When Coach Williams was at Kansas he had Kirk Hinrich and two other point guards and that was one of his better years at Kansas.
Thank the Lord Marcus Paige wasn't a one-and-done.
Coach Williams is pretty pleased with what he has seen from the freshman thus far, and it doesn't appear he is backing down on his word to Britt. Here is what he had to say at the ACC's Operation Basketball, via Inside Carolina:
Nate gives another true point guard that we haven’t had the last couple of years, so I love that. He’s really understanding pushing the pace, now we’ve got to get him to get under control when he does get there. But he’s really pushing the pace very well.
I will play two little guys together sometimes this year. Luke Davis has done a nice job. I don’t think I’ll ever play Luke, Marcus and Nate all three together. That’d be like a team full of jockeys. I’ll play two of the little guys together and Nate has done some really good things.
Coach always has jokes. If they're jockeys, then what would I be? Nevermind. I don't want to know.
This could be a very big year for Paige, which makes you wonder how he feels about sharing the limelight with Britt.
“I actually love the two point guard lineup,” Paige told Inside Carolina in his billionth interview of the offseason.
Really? Do tell.
I love it because it allows me to do different things on the court. It allows me to become more of a scorer and be more aggressive offensively. We’re both guards; we know how to play the game and we understand spacing.
I think we’re going to see that more than I expected to see it this summer. I did expect to see it some, but I think it’s something Coach can really work with. Hopefully he thinks the same thing.
I think he's sold, Marcus. So, how long until we get to see the magic happen, Coach?
"I’m convinced that the first a game when we play Oakland, you’ll see two little point guards out there together," Williams told the press.
Excellent. Waiting sucks.
The 2012-13 season was supposed to be a monster one for James Michael McAdoo. John Henson was finally out of his way, and he was ready to have the hype train choo-chooing all the way to the NBA draft.
It didn't quite work out that way for McAdoo when he was matched up against highly skilled big men. The natural talent was there, but he just looked unprepared for the challenge.
In a summer interview with Go Heels TV, McAdoo put the onus on himself:
Last year, I accepted those expectations, but I didn't really do anything with them. I didn't work as hard as I should have in the offseason. I just felt like the success at the end of the year would carry over. Now I realize what needs to be done and what I need to improve on, regardless of the expectations.
Getting in the gym and getting better is what it comes down to.
That was welcoming news for Tar Heel fans across the nation. Taking ownership of faults and admitting weakness in one's game is a huge step in the maturation process of any star athlete that has been showered with the attention of James Michael McAdoo.
But we all know talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. It's time to see if he is backing those comments with sweat and tears.
Coach Williams noted the change during his time at the mic last week:
After the season was over, his back was hurting so he didn’t play for quite a while. Man, when he started back in June he was very disciplined, very devoted, working hard with Jonas in the weight room, working hard with Coach Davis on his shot, working hard in practice.
But practice doesn’t make perfect, it’s perfect practice. I think that’s been the biggest change that he’s really tried to do all those things that makes you a better player.
The good thing with James Michael is I still don’t know how good he’s going to be, but I know it’s a pretty doggone good problem to have.
Coaches rarely throw players under the bus, though. Maybe Inside Carolina's Dijana Kunovac can smooth talk some dirt out of Brice Johnson.
"I've seen him work a lot," Johnson said. "He's been in the gym non-stop, every time I look. If I'm coming in the parking lot of the Dean Dome late at night I see his car sitting there, so I know he's been in there working."
So much for that. It sounds like McAdoo is for real. Look out, ACC, McAdoo is ready to break out.
Last year, out of desperation, Coach Williams slid James Michael McAdoo to the 5 with mixed results. Lacking a post game, being undersized and fighting back problems simply wasn't a formula for success.
This season, the hope is that someone will emerge as a true center to take a load off McAdoo in the post and allow him to play his natural position again. So far, it sounds like he will be back at power forward.
But not the whole time.
During the offseason, we've had many discussions about who will fill the void at the 3 while P.J. Hairston rides out his suspension. Obviously, J.P. Tokoto and Leslie McDonald will spend some time there, but power forwards Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and James Michael McAdoo have also come up in the debates.
It turns out McAdoo will be the one to make the shift when Williams decides to go big.
“We could end up playing Mac at the three in stretches and go really big or we could end playing me at the two and Leslie at the three and be a smaller lineup," Paige told Inside Carolina.
I've always wondered what McAdoo would look like at the 3. He has the speed for sure, but his range and handles were questionable. However, both of those areas have been points of focus for McAdoo this offseason, and his dribble does look sharper in the practice clips I've seen.
Is this a sure thing, though?
"I’m convinced in the first game against Oakland, you’ll see James Michael as a small forward," Coach Williams told the media.
It sounds like Oakland will be Carolina's proving grounds for a couple schemes. It kind of makes me wonder if there is something else Williams is keeping in his pocket.
J.P. Tokoto's freshman season was a little shaky to say the least. He was loose with his passing, and he only managed to bury one of his 11 three-point attempts. But, while Leslie McDonald was out, we witnessed a ton of potential from the ultra-springy small forward.
Every minute Tokoto was on the floor, he was nothing but 100-percent hustle, defending in transition, flying in for rebounds and put-backs, and showing off some serious on-ball defense.
When McDonald returned, Tokoto's minutes went down, his confidence waned and he became less effective as a result.
This offseason, Tokoto spent some time in the film room, looking for the flaws in his game. He also took some positives from the footage, noting he made an impact in 13 games.
When asked by a reporter last week if that was accurate, Coach Williams had a telling response.
"I have never evaluated it like that, so it’d be hard to compare it to that," he said. "I can easily say he’s going to be more of a factor in a lot more than that this year."
Tokoto put in a lot of work this summer with Hubert Davis, hoping to improve his three-point shot, pull-up jumper and his post moves. He knows he has to take is offensive game to the next level. The sophomore is hungry for minutes.
Williams likes what he has seen thus far.
I think J.P. is more confident with that and he should because he’s shooting it better. But I also want him to understand great players understand their strengths and their weaknesses. I don’t want him going out thinking that he’s going to shoot five or six threes every game and never go to the offensive rebound, because that’s not very intelligent. I think that he’ll understand that, too.
If Tokoto is half the player he has the potential of becoming, he is going to have a huge impact on the Tar Heels' season. He is much more talented than folks are willing to give him credit for at this point.
And that's just fine. It's nice having a secret weapon.
Keep Tokoto on the low.