CHAPEL HILL North Carolina freshman Kennedy Meeks needed time to shed nearly 30 pounds from his 320-pound frame when he came to North Carolina’s campus, and he needed time to build stamina to play effectively in college basketball.
Now, the former West Charlotte High standout is earning more time on the court for the Tar Heels.
Sunday night’s 11-point performance in an 80-61 win against Clemson was his third consecutive game in double figures, and with 26 minutes on the court it was the first time he’s played more than 20 minutes in a game in back-to-back games.
“The other night I think he played the last 13 minutes of the game, but we were so bad I just wanted him to stay out there,” coach Roy Williams said Sunday night, referring to the Jan. 20 loss at Virginia. “There’s no magic weight, but I’d like for him to be lower so he can be more explosive.”
Meeks, who is 6-foot-9, averages 7.5 points and is third on the team with six rebounds per game. Three games ago against Boston College, he scored 10 points in 15 minutes, and the following game against Virginia he scored 15 points and totaled nine rebounds in 21 minutes. He was named the team’s top defender by the coaching staff after the game.
He earned his third start of the season – and first in ACC play – Sunday against the Tigers, though Williams did not say whether Meeks will become a fixture in the lineup. He had eight rebounds with his 11 points on 5-for-9 shooting, a statistic that didn’t please Williams.
“He didn’t handle it quite as well inside,” Williams said. “Five-of-9 and every one of his shots were 3 inches away from the basket. He is doing some good things, and he’s working harder defensively, and he’s the best passer of all of them.”
Meeks, whose 56 percent shooting is best on the team, showed flashes of his paint dominance against Clemson, spinning toward the baseline against a double team early in the second half for a reverse layup. Other times he looked unsure of himself – taking an unnecessary dribble in the paint, traveling in the post and attempting a futile layup from behind the basket.
Point guard Marcus Paige said Meeks is learning how to use his body better against ACC-caliber players, saying the length of opponents is something he has had to adjust to as a freshman .
“He’s getting more opportunities as a starter, he’s getting more minutes that way and he’s slowly getting more comfortable,” Paige said. “He’ll still forget a play every now and then, but you can’t take away what he does on the glass.
“He’s a great rebounder and he just gives us more offense – because he’s a great passer – to start the game. Traditionally we’ve had some slow starts and I think he helps offset that a little bit.”
Meeks’ season had mirrored UNC’s season in its inconsistency. He followed up 15- and 12-point games with a one-point game against Kentucky in 19 minutes in December.
From Dec. 31 until the Jan. 18 game against Boston College, Meeks had 12 points in four games, with his worst coming at Syracuse, where he went scoreless and failed to grab a rebound.
After that stretch, Meeks had a recent moment of introspection.
“I think I hit a wall a couple games, but I just had to overcome that,” he said. “Just sit down and talk to myself about what I need to do for the team – sprinting back more, going to the defensive glass more, being more explosive, just taking my time with my shots. Just really being savvy on the court as far as playing my game, not trying to get out of my game, and focus on what I do best.”
Meeks has wanted the ball more, and he said he’s demanded it more lately, so he can be “the guy” in the post for the Tar Heels.
Teammates have noticed.
“He’s really good,” forward James Michael McAdoo said. “He’s lost a lot of weight and he’s been able to transform his game. After coach put him into the starting lineup, that’s really given him that added confidence.
“I know, personally, I’m able to feed off him because he is such a phenomenal player and he is such a great team player.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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