The familiar thought, or perhaps it’s more of a hope, is that an injury early in a season might reap rewards later – that the opportunity it presents will help other players develop, and help a team become stronger in the long run.
“A lot of people say that,” Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, said on Wednesday.
For the second time in what’s still a young season, Williams was talking about the potential positives of an injury to one of his starters. First it was Marcus Paige, the senior guard who missed the first six games of the season while recovering from a broken bone in his hand.
And now it’s Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward who missed the Tar Heels’ 96-72 victory against Tulane on Wednesday night, and who will miss an undetermined number of games while recovering from a bruised bone in his left knee.
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Paige’s absence allowed others – particularly Joel Berry, Nate Britt and Theo Pinson – more playing time than they would have had otherwise, and more of an opportunity to grow. And now Meeks’ absence will do the same for his teammates in the Tar Heels’ frontcourt.
Joel James, a senior, started in place of Meeks on Wednesday night. His role will expand. And the same could be said for Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward who during his years at UNC has shown his considerable potential without fully realizing it.
The reality, though, is this: Meeks’ absence hurts. It throws into disarray some of what UNC hoped to accomplish in these early months of the season, when teams begin to forge their identities and develop the traits that will carry them, or fail them, during more difficult times ahead.
Speaking of Paige and Meeks, Williams on Thursday noted that UNC has only “had those guys together for three games” out of the 10 the Tar Heels have played. They traveled on Thursday to Brooklyn, where on Saturday they’ll play against UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic at the Barclays Center.
Appearing on a teleconference with reporters, Williams was asked the same question he received in the days after Paige’s injury: Could the absence of Meeks make the Tar Heels better when he returns? To those kinds of questions, Williams said, “I say no.”
“I’d rather have my best players,” he said, “and if somebody steps up and gets more confidence now and can still play with confidence throughout the year and you do get Kennedy back, then I would probably agree that it helps. But you never know what’s going to happen until it’s over with.”
The loss of the 6-foot-10, 260-pound Meeks hurts the Tar Heels in a variety of ways. He is UNC’s best passing big man, and is among the best Williams has coached.
Meeks is capable of jump-starting fast-breaks with his long outlet passes after rebounds. In halfcourt sets, too, he’s a deft passer – especially out of double-teams. Offensively, Meeks possesses a soft touch that neither James or Hicks can emulate, and Meeks is UNC’s second-leading rebounder.
“It shakes up everything,” Paige said of Meeks’ absence, “because of how important Kennedy is to our team. But in the same way that I was out the first six games, we’re just going to have to cover up and everyone will step up a little bit.”
In some ways Paige’s injury left UNC with any easier void to fill. Or at least a simpler one to fill.
It was clear that another guard would play in his position and that the Tar Heels, physically, would look the same.
With Meeks out, Williams has more options. He could start the burly 6-foot-11, 280-pound James, as Williams did on Wednesday night. Williams could move the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Hicks into the starting lineup, alongside Johnson. That would give UNC two power forwards alongside each other.
Or the Tar Heels could go small. They did that sometimes, with success, against Tulane.
“Obviously we might have to go small at times,” Paige said, “with Justin (Jackson) or Theo at the four to try to use our speed and our length and quickness as an advantage.”
Williams on Wednesday night also played Hicks and James together, which is something he said the Tar Heels have done “a lot.” But not so much, in games, that it’s an entirely familiar look.
When Paige was out, his teammates missed his poise and leadership, and his penchant for making clutch shots when they’re most needed. With Meeks out UNC will miss his passing and rebounding, and his touch around the basket.
But it’s another opportunity – one Williams would rather not have. He struggled on Thursday to remember another instance, either during his days at Kansas or during his 12-year tenure at UNC, when he encountered a similar situation to start the season – two injuries to two starters, one after another.
“This is my 28th year as a head coach,” Williams said, “so if I sat down to think of it I’d probably say it has happened before.”
The Tar Heels have some experience with it this season. They’ve already been tasked with playing without Paige.
Now, after three games at full strength, UNC finds itself short-handed again, hoping that maybe Meeks’ injury, and the opportunity it affords, turns out to be a blessing months from now.
“I think we can hold it down with the bigs that we do have,” Johnson said.