UNC’s James Michael McAdoo finds comfort on his own path

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2014 

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UNC's James Michael McAdoo (43) collides with N.C State's Lennard Freeman (10) in the first half on Wednesday February 26, 2014 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • No. 14 North Carolina at No. 4 Duke

    When/where: 9 p.m., Saturday, Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham

    TV/Radio: ESPN, 102.9-WKIX, 106.1-WRDU

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (23-7, 13-4 ACC)

    G Marcus Paige 16.9 ppg, 4.5 apg

    G Leslie McDonald 10.7 ppg, 2 rpg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg

    F James M. McAdoo 14.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg

    F Kennedy Meeks 7.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg

    Duke (23-7, 12-5)

    G Rasheed Sulaimon 9.5 ppg, 2.7 apg

    G Tyler Thornton 3.2 ppg, 2.4 apg

    F Rodney Hood 16.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg

    F Jabari Parker 18.8 ppg, 9 rpg

    F Amile Jefferson 6.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg

    LAST MEETING

    Duke led UNC by 11 with about 15 minutes to play in their Feb. 20 matchup in Chapel Hill. From there, the Tar Heels controlled the game and finished with a 74-66 victory that left the Smith Center floor crowded with delirious, celebrating students. During the final 15 minutes, UNC outscored Duke 34-15. The Blue Devils seemed to run out of energy, and it didn’t help that they made just 5 of 22 3-point attempts. Leslie McDonald, the senior guard, led the Tar Heels with 21 points and Marcus Paige scored 13 – all in the second half. Duke shot 35.5 percent in the second half.

    THREE KEYS FOR DUKE

    1. Make the outside shot

    The Blue Devils have been the best 3-point shooting team in the ACC, and they’re making 39.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. Lately, though, Duke has struggled. The Blue Devils have made 27.1 percent of their 3-pointers in their past four games – a stretch that includes the loss against UNC – and that has to change for Duke to regain its midseason form.

    2. Keep Jabari Parker active and involved

    Parker scored just seven points – two on a meaningless dunk in the final seconds – in the second half of Duke’s loss at UNC. That has been a trend for the Blue Devils this season – Parker disappearing late in close games. Maybe Parker needs to do a better job of asserting himself. Or perhaps his teammates need to do a better job of keeping him involved. Regardless, if Duke is going to win Parker needs to be a factor in the second half and especially down the stretch if it's a close game.

    3. Play tough

    One of the tenets of Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching philosophy is the idea of toughness – both mental and physical. The Blue Devils have lacked toughness at times this season, and they faded late in both of their most recent losses – at UNC and at Wake Forest earlier this week. Krzyzewski’s health is a concern, as well. He wasn’t his usual fiery self during the loss at Wake, and his team seemed to miss his intense leadership style.

    THREE KEYS FOR UNC

    1. Keep Duke frustrated on the perimeter

    Duke missed some open 3s against UNC in the first game, but the Tar Heels also defended Duke well and made it difficult for the Blue Devils to get the shots they wanted. UNC is holding teams to 31 percent 3-point shooting, which ranks third in the ACC, and UNC’s perimeter defense has been especially strong during its 12-game winning streak.

    2. Get Marcus Paige going

    Paige scored a career-high 35 points during UNC’s overtime victory at N.C. State last week, but he followed that with a combined 16 points in ugly victories against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. It’s one thing to beat those teams without much offense out of Paige, but winning at Duke, it would seem, would be far more difficult.

    3. Match the intensity

    Duke wilted amid the heat – figuratively and literally – inside the Smith Center on Feb. 20. The Tar Heels that night did what they wanted during the final 10 minutes. UNC will enter the kind of environment that Duke did two and a half weeks ago. It’ll be hot, loud and inhospitable – as it always is for the Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium – and UNC will have to match, or exceed, Duke’s energy.

    Andrew Carter

— People didn’t understand it, why James Michael McAdoo turned down millions of dollars and the allure of being a high NBA draft pick. People didn’t understand why he chose to return to North Carolina, where he studies history, daydreams about learning how to surf and embraces college life beyond basketball.

Nearly two years later, McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, smiles at the memory. It’s a coy smile instead of a happy one – a smile that suggests he understands things others don’t. He knows people are a little confused by him, that they judged him for turning down the money. That, McAdoo said, is “just the society we live in.”

“It wasn’t that difficult to ignore (the temptation to leave) and come back,” McAdoo said Friday, the day before the Tar Heels’ regular-season finale at Duke. “I love it here at Carolina, I love my teammates. There’s been some good times and some bad times, but that’s just life. To have this opportunity was a blessing from God.”

“But you know, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel led to go, I didn’t want to go – I don’t regret it all.”

To understand McAdoo’s growth is to understand how he coped with pressure and scrutiny that has surrounded him for years – pressure that at times was heavy enough to break him. Five years ago, McAdoo became the youngest player to be named the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year.

Three years ago, McAdoo was among the most followed and talked-about prospects as a senior at Norfolk Christian High School in Virginia. And two years ago, he was laboring through his freshman season at UNC.

Those were challenging times – times when he became lost in his mind, and lost amid the expectations others had set for him. The USA Basketball award he won – Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins received it, too, before they came to UNC.

No one expected McAdoo to be Jordan or Perkins, but they expected him to be something greater than he was for most of his freshman season. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, described those expectations as “so unrealistic and off the charts.” McAdoo’s father, Ronnie, said they “were just way too high.”

And when McAdoo struggled, well, there was no shortage of criticism on message boards and from talking heads.

“People have just been so critical of a young man who loves school, loves the University of North Carolina, and all he wants to do is make the team better,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “And when he falls short, people are so cruel.”

Last name carries weight, expectations

Expectations and pressure, at least when it comes to basketball, have followed the younger McAdoo since childhood. His parents played professionally overseas – in Japan, China, Greece and Italy – and Ronnie, who James Michael calls “Big Mac,” is in the Hall of Fame at Old Dominion University.

Then there’s the last name. During the 1971-72 season – his first and only season at UNC – Robert McAdoo earned All-American honors. He and Ronnie are second cousins.

“I’m sure James Michael would never say that, but there has to be pressure with the name McAdoo and Bob being an All-American at North Carolina,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “… But he would never say that. And one thing I try to tell him is, I said, ‘J, don’t try to live up (to anything) – I said you are who you are. And just be who you are, man.’ 

That has been a challenge for James Michael. During his freshman season, his confidence wilted so much that he openly questioned whether he belonged on a team filled with future first-round NBA draft picks. He wondered whether he had a place.

Then came his chance. Center John Henson suffered a wrist injury during the 2012 ACC tournament, and McAdoo made the most of his opportunity. He played so well he shot up the NBA draft projections.

All of a sudden he had a decision to make – to stay or to go – though two years later it sounds like it wasn’t much of a decision at all. He weighed his options and his desire to experience college – and become a better basketball player along the way – outweighed the money and whatever else the NBA had to offer.

“Of course, I think about like, dang, what if I would have went to the NBA,” McAdoo said. “I’d be, what, I guess this would be my second year in the league. But at the end of the day, I’m happy here.”

A leader evolves

McAdoo is a bit different. He doesn’t do Twitter or social media. He’s a self-described Civil War buff. He wants to learn how to surf. He appreciates college and campus culture, and a couple of weeks ago checked out a dance performance by a group of guys from Rio de Janeiro.

On the court, McAdoo has always emitted a sense of calm, almost stoicism.

Now, though, it’s backed by confidence that wasn’t always there. When he returned for his sophomore season, he came back, again, to enormous expectations. He averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds, and yet he was written off as a disappointment – a guy who should have taken the money when it was there.

McAdoo last season learned how to better handle the criticism. Sometimes, Ronnie McAdoo tells his son that he’s learning something about that – about how to handle harsh words.

“Sometimes when I read that stuff, I get so frustrated – I want to just log on and just chew these people out,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “Or pick up the phone, and call this reporter. But hey – that’s a part of the business, man. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”

On paper, McAdoo’s evolution might be difficult to trace. His numbers are roughly the same as they were last year.

A deeper look, though, tells a more complete story. McAdoo has become an emotional leader. He’s the quickest to dive for loose balls. He might trade a high-five with a fan after a dunk, as he did earlier this season, and he’s playing with the kind of raw attitude befitting of his patchy beard, which makes him look something like a 1970s vigilante.

A season ago, sophomore guard Marcus Paige said, McAdoo “wanted to be that leader.” Now he is.

“I think that’s why we see him chasing balls 90 feet and diving for it,” Paige said. “And he understands that if he does those kinds of things, other guys will follow his lead.”

Choosing his own path

Williams isn’t exactly sure when things changed for McAdoo. The turning point can’t be defined by a single game or moment. It was gradual, something created by years of hard times and long talks McAdoo shared with his dad, when they spoke of anything but basketball.

About 10 years ago, Ronnie McAdoo left a good corporate job with Pepsi to start working with an urban ministry. People questioned him about then, too, sort of like they questioned his son.

This, though, is what James Michael came back for: to grow up and learn something about himself, and to experience college. He knows that comes with judgment nowadays, with so many college players leaving early for the NBA. McAdoo’s father gets a kick out of that.

More than anything his son has done on the basketball court, he likes to tell the story about how James Michael recently rescued and then adopted a kitten that had been abandoned outside the Smith Center. Took it home, fed it, took it to get shots – everything. That tells Ronnie he raised his son right.

So, too, does the fact that James Michael was never in a rush.

“People make it sound like it’s a bad thing now,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “You know – it’s amazing where we’ve come from, to the point where people will criticize a kid for staying in school.

“I mean, that blows me away – a kid is being criticized for staying in school because he loves playing for North Carolina, he loves the college atmosphere and the NBA is not going anywhere.”

That comes with a stigma nowadays, when players are expected to leave early. McAdoo has followed a different path.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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