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Kennedy Meeks is ready to break out

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Kennedy Meeks is healthy, in the best shape of his career, and ready to dominate in the post

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last year was supposed to be Kennedy Meeks’s year. He entered last season in the best shape of his career, ready to expand on a largely successful sophomore campaign. As fans, we were giddy with excitement. If Brice Johnson could just maintain his 2014-15 production and throw in some highlight reel dunks we were going to be happy. We had high hopes for Kennedy. He averaged 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He shot 56% from the floor. All of this while playing 23 minutes per game. 2015-2016 was going to be his year.

Then, he got hurt. Deep bone bruise. It lingered. It affected his conditioning, for which he had worked so hard to achieve during the off-season. And Brice didn't just hold steady. Brice took his ball and his jersey, and decided he wanted to hang out in the rafters for the rest of his life. All of a sudden, questions were asked. Fans grew frustrated. Unflattering adjectives were used to describe his play. Enigma. Disappointment. Dud. Flop. Underachiever. Pick one. It was probably used at some point.

Let's be crystal clear: Kennedy Meeks is none of those things. Instead, he has been a steady and consistent post player during one of the most important stretches in UNC basketball history. He has been the consummate "professional", doing whatever he could to help the team. And he has done it while being dealing with injuries for almost half of the time. The man is a competitor.

It was as though we threw Kennedy a coming out party and then didn't invite him. Kennedy had to play second fiddle to Brice. His injury never fully went away. His conditioning -his biggest single noticeable weakness- suffered. His minutes dipped. The psychological toll was immense. You could see the frustration on his face. His 1,000 watt smile disappeared. Compared to his stats from previous years, and the expectations many had, it would be easy to call last season a regression. I would argue against that.

Let's check out some numbers. Below are some stats for Johnson and Meeks from the previous three years. In 13-14, James Michael McAdoo was the main post presence, but the previous two season have had the Meeks/Johnson duo in the front court.

2013-2014

Minutes Per Game

Points Per Game

Rebounds Per Game

Shooting %

Johnson

19.4

10.3

6.1

.556

Meeks

16.3

7.6

6.1

.554

2014-2015

Minutes Per Game

Points Per Game

Rebounds Per Game

Shooting %

Johnson

24.7

12.9

7.8

.556

Meeks

23.3

11.4

7.3

.562

2015-2016

Minutes Per Game

Points Per Game

Rebounds Per Game

Shooting %

Johnson

28

17

10.4

.614

Meeks

20.6

9.2

5.9

.558



These numbers tell us a few things.

The first number that pops out is the minutes per game. In '15-16 the decrease in playing time is largely due to the injury. Bone bruises, like a stress fracture, can linger. For a guy like Kennedy, whose frame is not naturally "slim", an injury of that nature has a serious impact on your weight and fitness. In UNC's system, that's a pretty important part of a post player's game. It is likely the cause of what appeared to be game-to-game inconsistency, and that may be a fair concern.

But, looking at his overall production, Kennedy actually stayed consistent with his historical output. Last season, in three fewer minutes per game, he averaged 2.2 points and 1.4 rebounds less a game. That's just shy of a layup and one rebound. Essentially, one possession. In short, his production rate did not suffer, just his final numbers. That's a key difference. He produced at similar rates to previous seasons, while playing injured and next to an All-American.

When you compare the total output of the Johnson/Meeks combo, they also remain amazingly consistent. In '14-15, the duo averaged a combined 48 minutes 24.3 points and 15.1 rebounds per game. In '15-16, they averaged a combined 48.6 minutes, 26.2 points and 16.4 rebounds per game. Meeks didn't so much regress as Johnson just blossomed.

In other words, Johnson's minutes and production increased almost the same amount that Meeks' decreased. Brice Johnson simply had a historical individual year, and Meeks did exactly what he needed to do: played the vital complementary role. He pushed his personal ambitions aside and just did his job. Never once did he let his disappointment become a detriment to the team, the way some players in the very recent past may have done.

This was most evident when Jay Williams decided he wanted to be a coach, and called on Roy Williams to start Isaiah Hicks. Hicks is flashy, and he throws the ball through the hoop as ferociously as anyone who has worn the UNC uniform in the last 15 years. Hicks, by all accounts, had turned into Meeks - the next dominant UNC post player that fans were salivating over, if Roy would just let him loose.

Roy responded in typical Roy fashion by ignoring everybody. Meeks responded with a Twitter rant where he effectively said all that matters is the team, and it didn't matter who produced on any given day. There wasn't any sulking. There was no bitterness, jealousy, or contempt. Just outright frustration and belief in his teammates. Now with all of that behind him, I firmly believe it's Meeks' time to shine

His skill set is one of the most unique UNC has had in a while, and he can make his mark as the ideal four/trail man this year (if he is used in that capacity):

  • His 15 foot jumper is deadly enough to draw his defender away from the paint, clearing space for a slashing wing or Hicks.
  • His passing touch makes him a threat on the outlet and dangerous from the perimeter.
  • He's strong enough to rebound with bigger bodies, or at least clear space so others can gather the loose ball. (Think of it as...a rebound before the rebound).
  • When healthy, Meeks also runs the floor exceptionally well
  • Defensively, he had the second best defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) on the team. The best? Brice Johnson.

Admittedly, he does have a few weaknesses. If addressed, he could also be lethal from the five/center position (which will be necessary with the lack of depth at that position this year). Meeks likes to get deep in the paint, right under the rim. That's the way UNC's system is taught- running to the rim allows the post player and ball handler the freedom to choose the right or left block as the defense gets in position. Typically, this is where he has found himself in difficulty. A lack of post moves, explosiveness, and a tendency to keep the ball below his waist has led to turnovers and altered shots.

He has never been a great back-to-the-basket player, so it's fair to question his limitations here. If he can develop a primary and secondary post-move, and use them effectively, this can release enough defensive pressure to make him dangerous. His shooting percentage was still an impressive 54% last season. A few go-to moves, coupled with a focus of keeping the ball above his waist, and that percentage should increase.

That may seem like a tall order, considering it hasn't been on display the past few seasons. I'd understand skepticism. But, coming fresh off the NBA Draft process, and considering UNC's successful track record to develop big men, I'm confident.

Additionally, having a true PG running the offense, compared to the lead guard talents of Marcus Paige, may also provide more opportunities, specifically on the fast and secondary breaks. When Meeks does move to the five spotthis season, if his conditioning is at peak level, his ability to run the floor is going to be on display. His hands need to be ready to catch passes from all angles, directions, and speeds. If Joel Berry is able to dictate the tempo like we saw late last year, there will be ample opportunity to feast around the rim.

I fully acknowledge most of this is based on him staying healthy, and that's a legitimate concern. But his skill set is truly unique to what we've seen in a UNC uniform. He is the ultimate teammate, and has checked his ego at the door at a difficult time in his career. And through it all, he has continued to produce at overall consistent, efficient levels.

That isn't someone who is lazy or underachieving. That's a player who is straight up battling his demons, and still is a productive member of the team. Kennedy Meeks just competes. I'll take that mentality, and his potential, every single day and twice on Sundays.

Kennedy has the tools, talents, and resources to deliver the results many expected last season. With nothing holding him back, I'm ready to see him finally arrive at his own coming out party.