CHAPEL HILL, NC — Two weeks ago, before the first attempt at Duke-North Carolina, UNC junior forward James Michael McAdoo sat in front of a group of media and talked about the peace he feels with where he's at in his career.
Meditation and prayer, he said, had helped him get through the tough times.
Once thought to be a lottery pick, McAdoo has stayed at a place that he loves when others thought he should be somewhere else.
"People always say they should change the (age-limit) rule," McAdoo said. "But if a guy is ready, by all means go. But me personally, that's a decision that obviously I've gone about on a different path than a lot of people thought I should have."
Leaving early would have been the easy thing to do, because by staying put, McAdoo had to deal with the expectations others placed upon him.
He became a poster child for the guy who stays too long. He heard the chatter that he overbooked his stay. Not just once, but twice.
And this isn't meant to dog on Tar Heels fans—because it could just as easily be Kentucky or Kansas or Duke—but McAdoo, the most talented guy on the roster, had unfairly been designated the scapegoat for the program.
Some would have found it appropriate to inscribe "from lottery pick to bust" on the back of his jersey after early losses to Belmont and UAB and a 1-4 start in the ACC.
A month later, the story has changed. The Tar Heels are one of the hottest teams in the country—winners of nine straight—and they're not winning in spite of McAdoo, they're winning because of the big man.
In the first six games of the win streak, McAdoo averaged 18.2 points and 8.8 rebounds before a foul-plagued 13 minutes against Florida State in which he went scoreless. Take that game out, and McAdoo is averaging 16.3 points per game during the winning streak.
"He's playing so much harder," Roy Williams said. "He's the one that has set the tone with a sense of urgency in most of our games...I think that he's just been playing so hard and attacking and being so aggressive that the other guys have drawn some strength from that and tried to go along with it."
This is the McAdoo that folks in Carolina expected when he returned for his sophomore season.
His performance that year was uneven. Some ups and some downs, and it had been more of the same this year as the Heels tried to find their identity in the wake of P.J. Hairston's departure from the team.
The best thing that has happened for McAdoo is that Marcus Paige has stepped in as the clear go-to guy.
McAdoo is not a great scorer. Not a go-to guy. But before last season, he was slotted in that role and tried to be that guy.
Now, he knows who he is. He's an opportunity scorer. A big man who can run the floor for easy buckets and also use his speed and athleticism to drive to the rim or crash the offensive glass.
This season McAdoo has scored 85 points in transition, according to Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required). Only three big men playing for power-conference schools—Duke's Jabari Parker, Oklahoma's Cameron Clark and Iowa State's Melvin Ejim—have outscored him in transition, and all three are more like wings playing power forward.
"He runs the court better than any big guy in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewksi said.
What McAdoo's numbers also show is a guy who has had his struggles in the half court. He's scored 0.828 points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy, and 0.727 points per possession on spot-ups, which is well below average.
McAdoo's game not only needed to mature, he had to get to the point where he realized his limitations and strengths.
That takes time. And it's hard to ignore all those voices that say you should be showing the scouts you're capable of knocking down outside shots and scoring from the post.
In the last month, McAdoo has gone to his strengths, and at times, he has been able to carry the Heels. Against Pittsburgh, he had the best game of his career, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
"I think that he's finally gotten very comfortable offensively, to the point that he knows he can use his first step to go by anybody that's bigger than him, and then he uses his size to shoot that little 15-footer that he's made a lot more consistently this year," point guard Marcus Paige said. "That's helped him raise his efficiency level and he's attacking the glass."
The other knock on McAdoo was that he just didn't play with enough emotion.
That has changed this year, as McAdoo has regularly pumped his fist and showed emotion while on the court. He's become a leader for the Tar Heels.
"He's become a very emotional leader for us and that energy has thrived," teammate Jackson Simmons said. "When he's diving on the floor against Maryland and set the tone against (North Carolina) State, it's just gotten us going and that's what a leader is supposed to do. He's just being a leader."
"If my teammates are feeding off of that, I'm excited," McAdoo said.
Whether this is McAdoo just catering to the critique that he didn't show enough emotion or it's something he realized his teammates needed, he's made a change.
It takes time to figure out who you are and who you want to be. Every college kid, athlete or not, goes through that process.
We just want the uber-talented to figure it out faster than everyone else.
For the Tar Heels, they should be happy McAdoo stuck around to find his strengths in college instead of spending his life in the D-League, which is probably where he would have ended up had he left early for the NBA.
As for his pro stock, most NBA teams don't ask their guys to do everything. They just want niche guys who know what they're really good at and don't try to be someone they're not.
The same could be said for a talent haven like Carolina. And McAdoo gets it now. He's evolved into a really good, productive college player on a team that's playing great.
Sometimes, believe it or not, it pays to be patient and stay in school.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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