North Carolina sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks was back in his hometown on Saturday, back in an arena where he once played, briefly, as a pre-teen, and back a few miles from where he became one of the best high school players in the state at West Charlotte High.
He didn’t know exactly how many family members and friends had come out to see him at Time Warner Cable Arena – “about maybe 15,” he said after the Tar Heels’ 90-72 victory against Davidson – but those who did watched a guy who both looks and plays a lot differently than he did at West Charlotte.
One play late in the Tar Heels’ victory personified Meeks’ physical journey and provided a visual to those stories – all true – about how he’s lost 50 pounds in a little less than a year and a half. The play went like this: Meeks denied a Davidson pass near midcourt, tipped it ahead to himself, ran and took possession and finished with a breakaway dunk that gave UNC a 79-60 lead in the final minutes.
Meeks said he was “a little gassed” afterward and even “surprised” he finished the play. And anyone who hadn’t seen Meeks up close in a while might have been surprised, too.
“But what he’s done with his body, I mean, he doesn’t get a steal, deny and dunk last year,” said Marcus Paige, UNC’s junior guard. “He doesn’t do that.”
Meeks, who finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals, was the primary reason the Tar Heels (3-0) had their way against Davidson (2-1) on the interior, where UNC held a 44-22 advantage in the paint – and did so despite the Wildcats’ persistent use of double-teams. This, though, was a balanced victory.
Six UNC players scored at least nine points. Paige made a season-high three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points. Isaiah Hicks, the sophomore forward who had difficulty finding his place last season, came off the bench and added nine points.
In addition to all the good on offense – UNC shot 47.8 percent and outscored Davidson in points off turnovers (10-5), second-chance points (24-15) and fast-break points (10-5) – coach Roy Williams said this was his team’s best defensive performance in three games.
The Tar Heels, who trailed by five early, used an 11-0 run to take control in the first half, led 46-34 at halftime and never led by fewer than eight points in the second half. In a game with no shortage of bright spots, Meeks was the brightest.
Williams entered the season hoping – needing – at least one of his post players to emerge and become a reliable, go-to player. So far, so good for Meeks, who was one rebound short against N.C. Central in the season-opener of starting the season with three consecutive double-doubles.
Not that he’s exactly where Williams wants him to be – and hopes he’ll be.
“We’ve got to get his mind correct – that he does have a different body, that he can do certain things,” Williams said. “I mean, he’s giving me the tired signal, and then goes out there and denies the pass 45 feet from the basket and goes down and dunks it.”
In his nearly 30 years as a head coach, has Williams encountered another player who so dramatically altered his physique in as short of a time as Meeks has? Williams thought about it for a second and answered, “No.”
But, Williams said to start with, “I’ve never had anybody report at 319, so let’s look where we’re starting from first.”
Since the summer of 2013, Meeks has gone from about 320 pounds to about 270, with a lot of the weight dripping off, in the form of sweat, inside the UNC weight room. He has changed his diet; changed the way he works out. Changed his playing style, too, which has showed early on in his ability to deny passes and create fast break chances.
The skill was always there, and the savvy around the basket, but now there’s some stamina to go with it. Meeks played 31 minutes on Saturday, which tied his career high.
“The biggest thing for me that I’ve noticed is when I throw it in there, I’m confident that he’s going to finish the play,” said J.P. Tokoto, junior forward who finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists. “He has the strength now to just go up through guys.”
Though not quite the explosiveness – at least not to the degree Williams would prefer.
Tokoto, who’s known for his jumping ability, joked that Meeks had asked him for some pointers.
“Yeah, he asked me for a few inches off my vertical but I told him I couldn’t do that,” Tokoto said.
The way Meeks has progressed, though, increased explosiveness – as Williams often puts it – might be the next step. A year ago, Meeks’ jumping ability – or lack of it – was a point of humor among his teammates, who liked to chide him about it.
Now they can’t stop praising him for the work he’s put in off the court and how far he’s come on it. Meeks said he played in Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena once before, at halftime of an NBA game “in a little scrimmage” with his AAU team. He said he was about 11 or 12.
This was the first real game he’d played in his hometown since he left it for UNC. He couldn’t begin to compare where he is now, physically, to where he was when he left not all that long ago.
“No, he said. “Can’t. It’s incredible, man.”