For most of his three years at North Carolina, fans and coaches have been looking for James Michael McAdoo to live up to his potential. Ranked the No. 6 prospect in the 2011 class by ESPN, McAdoo landed in Chapel Hill with heightened expectations.
Couple that with the fact his bloodline is shared with UNC and NBA legend Bob McAdoo, and you have a recipe for some serious pressure. Fortunately, as a Tar Heel freshman, there was a relief valve by the name of John Henson, who played ahead of McAdoo at the power forward spot.
In limited minutes, McAdoo was a shell of the player everyone was touting out of high school. That is, until Henson went down with a wrist injury, which propelled McAdoo into the starting lineup during the ACC tournament.
With a renewed sense of importance, McAdoo helped the Tar Heels to the ACC title game, where they ultimately lost to Florida State in a tight battle. In his final start before Henson's return, McAdoo tallied 17 points, six rebounds, four steals and an assist against Vermont in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Though he didn't get another start for the rest of the season, his play caught the attention of NBA scouts, executives and a drooling cast of media eager to fire up the hype train. McAdoo was a superior athlete with a motor that never seemed to quit.
The NBA was ready to pull him away from the Tar Heel State, but the youngster chose to pass up a possible lottery selection for another season with Roy Williams and Co. That sent the hype train full steam ahead through the summer months, as fans and media anxiously awaited the "Return of the Mac."
Unfortunately, my attempt to warn everyone that he needed a couple more years was a futile one. McAdoo was pounded hard by the critics, as everyone seemed to think he took a step back as a sophomore.
He may not have improved very much, but it was hardly a step back. There was potential in his game if he could just find a way to be physical and keep that motor going that worked so well for him as a freshman.
Finally, halfway through his junior year, McAdoo seems to be finding himself.
The Tar Heels have struggled mightily throughout the season due to a lack of tenacity on either side of the floor—especially against their lesser opponents. They've needed someone—a leader—to set the tone for the rest of the team with a spark of energy and some much-needed moxie.
McAdoo spoke to this in his interview following the Clemson game, courtesy of Go Heels TV.
"[I was] just really trying to be a leader, you know, along with Marcus [Paige], and just really set the tone, especially from the beginning—even before the game started, in warm-ups," he said.
"Hopefully guys realize that when we don't play with a sense of urgency, the results usually aren't in our favor."
For the last year and a half, it seemed McAdoo would never be that guy. Over the last two games, though, the junior has played with a fire and passion reminiscent of his freshman year in relief of Henson.
He's hustling for rebounds, diving for 50-50 balls and attacking the basket with confidence. He's screaming, pumping his fist and posterizing opponents who still believe he'll try to avoid contact at all costs.
McAdoo only mustered 11 points against Virginia last week, but one could hardly blame him for that. The forward was on a tear the first few minutes of the game, but then they stopped feeding him the rock for whatever reason. What we did see was a more active and aggressive McAdoo who was actually willing to throw down in traffic.
Anyone who has closely followed JMM or this team knows how surprising it is to see the kid get physical, despite his chiseled 6'9", 230-pound frame. He has always shied away from contact. Now, he seems to be embracing it.
That was more evident in his 22-point performance against Clemson on Sunday. He gave us two surprising slams that had me wondering if P.J. Hairston had taken over his body.
Beyond the emphatic dunks, McAdoo was just all over the floor making play after play. He finished off a great save from J.P. Tokoto by weaving through traffic on the fast break and dropping a beautiful dime on the move to Leslie McDonald for an easy lay-in.
That's to be expected from Tokoto or any of the point guards...but McAdoo? Really?
It's tough not to like what we have seen from McAdoo over the last couple games. If you haven't enjoyed the show, you're either an extreme McAdoo hater or you haven't followed him closely enough to understand the shift in his mentality.
Just about every Tar Heel has been in a shooting rut since ACC play began, except McAdoo. He's shooting 49 percent from the floor on the season—up from 44.5 as a sophomore. In January, he has knocked down 37 of his 66 attempts (56 percent).
Yes, he has still been struggling from the free-throw line, shooting just 5-of-15 in the last two contests. Yes, it would still be nice to see him develop a back-to-the-basket game, and, frankly, he'll need it at the next level.
But developing a physical mindset is the first step in becoming a truly dominant post player. And with the new hand-checking rule in place, perhaps his ability to blow by defenders off the bounce will be enough to counter the weaknesses of his post game.
One must also consider what he has gone through since that freshman season. He played most of the 2012-13 season without any help at center. Then he had to play the 5 when Williams decided to go small, due to poor center play—while dealing with a painful herniated disk in his back.
The situation at center has been better this season, but there still isn't that consistent guy who can match McAdoo's 30 minutes a game. Freshman Kennedy Meeks is getting the most playing time of any center on the roster at an average of 15.9 minutes per contest.
On top of the issues in the paint, he has also had to play the 3 on occasion to make up for the depth the Tar Heels lost on the wing in Hairston's absence.
McAdoo has been asked to do an awful lot during his time in Chapel Hill and is often criticized for not living up to expectations. But, let's face it: Those expectations were unreasonable—especially with the situations he has been placed in.
Sometimes the effort didn't seem to be there, and that is worthy of criticism when you don Carolina blue.
Folks, I'm here to tell you this isn't the same James Michael McAdoo we've watched play all these years. The Tar Heel star is finally coming of age. If he keeps this up, North Carolina will threaten to mix up the ACC, and he just might find himself back in the lottery come June.
In his third season with the Tar Heels, McAdoo is making the best of an imperfect situation. And it all began with him jump-starting the motor that initiated all the hype in the first place.