Returning Tar Heels impressed by rookies
Posted October 1, 2013
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Prior to Friday’s opening day of practice, Roy Williams had been limited in evaluating his freshman class since its matriculation due to NCAA bylaws. His players, on the other hand, have spent three months with the rookies and were able to offer perspective during UNC’s media day.
When asked about the trio of freshmen – point guard Nate Britt and forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks - Williams talked about seeing good things out of them during the handful of NCAA-allowed summer practice sessions and how all three want to be good players.
“I really like all three of them and I think all three of them are going be very important to us,” the 11th-year UNC head coach said.
Williams then told the reporter to ask him again in three weeks – presumably at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media day on Oct. 16 – when he would have a better idea of how the rookies would fit in.
The returning Tar Heels, however, have participated in countless games of pickup, shootarounds and strength and conditioning workouts with the new additions since their arrival in June.
Meeks has arguably made the most improvement of the three this summer, according to roommate J.P. Tokoto. The tangible difference for the 6-foot-9 forward has been in shedding 25 pounds, down from 317 to 292, Williams said.
“When he first got here, you could definitely tell that he was going to have to drop some weight,” Tokoto said. “And with pickup last week, you’ve seen a huge difference. He’s running up and down the court. Guys are trying to beat him down and can’t beat him.”
Despite his immense size, Meeks built his resume on soft hands, savvy and a cannon designed specifically for outlet passes. As junior forward James Michael McAdoo puts it: “He's the best outlet passer that I've ever seen.”
Sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said that Meeks could grab a rebound, turn and fire the ball 80 feet down the court for a layup. That passing ability is also effective on the interior, where Meeks’s footwork and touch comes into play.
“I've never seen a man like that, so big, move so secretly,” sophomore forward Joel James said. “He has a great nose for the ball. Someone makes a pass, I'm touching him, another pass is made and he slips behind me and gets a rebound. He knows when it's coming off the rim and the way he tips back offensive rebounds is great.”
While Meeks’s athleticism may not jump off the court, that’s not the case for his classmate in post.
“Isaiah definitely has a high motor; he's really active,” McAdoo said. “I say he's raw, but he's really skilled. He knows his body and how to play really well. And he's a great runner, so once he gets into the system and realizes where he can really find his niche, the sky is the limit.”
Paige said that while Meeks is suited for the 5-spot, Hicks’s game sets up well for the 4-spot. Williams even hinted at the possibility of playing Hicks (6-8, 220) at the 3-spot if he wanted to go big during certain situations.
“Isaiah’s versatile,” Tokoto said. “He reminds me a lot of myself. He can dribble; I didn’t expect that… He has a very good postgame, which is surprising as well. He sees the floor pretty well with his height. I feel like he’ll be a matchup problem for a lot of guys this year.”
The lone guard in the freshman class is Britt, who spent the majority of his senior season recovering from a meniscus injury.
“He's really quick, he's hard to stay in front of, he pushes the ball a lot - so that's going to help us play faster having multiple guys that can push the ball up the floor and make good decisions on the run,” Paige said. “He's rock solid, he doesn't make many mistakes - he won't hurt you or take bad shots, he lets the game come to him.”
Britt, who checks in at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, will likely see playing time alongside of Paige in the backcourt due to UNC’s limited roster numbers on the perimeter.
“We're both natural distributors,” Paige said. “We both attack the basket and get easy opportunities for everyone else. I honestly love playing with him and have no problem shifting over to the two for stretches during games because he's a really easy guy to play with on the floor.”
None of the three rookies are saddled with lofty expectations heading into the season, although playing time will be available, especially in the post.
“Kennedy and Isaiah are both going to get good minutes, and I know Nate is, too,” Paige said. “It's a different situation from last year, where Brice [Johnson], Joel and J.P. didn't get many minutes. I think our freshmen are going to contribute - and contribute throughout the year as well.”
UNC’s freshman class will benefit from 29 scheduled practices prior to the season opener against Oakland on Nov. 8.