CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- The expectations that followed Kennedy Meeks into his sophomore season were based more in his physical transformation than his solid showing as a freshman in 2013-14. The Charlotte, N.C. native dropped 50 pounds between his enrollment and the start of practice last fall, and the immediate visualization from outside observers was a more explosive post player with a better ability to get out in transition. Considering that Meeks already had the footwork, shooting touch and passing ability down low, the final product had seemingly unlimited potential.
Now entering his junior season, Meeks is still working toward those lofty expectations. Despite the weight loss, the increased explosiveness and conditioning were not as dramatic as some projected as Meeks continued to play below the rim. Roy Williams suggested it was a matter of his 6-foot-9 center learning to play with his new body, a mental hurdle more challenging than many anticipated.
Meeks is currently down to 260 pounds, although his weight loss looks more significant given his body composition. He averaged 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2014-15, and led the team with 46 blocks. His level of conditioning paired with a return to health may be the most important aspects of his offseason efforts. After scoring in double figures in 21 of his first 27 games last season, Meeks managed double figures just once over his final nine contests.
By Eric Montross
I love the versatility of Kennedy's game. He has a very fluid and smooth game, and he knows what he needs to do when he's on the court.
Kennedy had difficulty going up against talented big guys who were stronger than him as a sophomore, and he has really worked on his conditioning since the end of last season. I think we will see a broader offensive threat in Kennedy, and fewer instances of him getting caught under the basket. The incredible conditioning he did after his freshman year had a significant impact on his contributions as a sophomore, and I believe he needs to replicate that again and raise his fitness level to an even higher level.
A basketball player can have all the skills in the world, but inevitably you are going to have to deal with other players who have strong athleticism. Last season we saw Kennedy have a lot of good moments, and he truly - again - made great strides with his conditioning. Does he have enough fitness this year, as a junior, to stay on the floor for long stretches of time?
By Rob Harrington
Most Tar Heels improved over the course of last season, but Meeks strangely drifted backward after a strong beginning. In fact, through the first six weeks he actually was the squad’s best player and even after a disappointing finish was a plus-minus darling. Many attributed the inconsistency to fluctuating weight, but ebbing confidence appeared to be a factor as well. Despite all that, the junior stands to improve on his solid 11 points and seven rebounds per game. Now properly conditioned and accustomed to his teammates, his goal will be to maintain consistency for the entire season. If he does, he could ascend to All-ACC level.
Xs & Os INSIDER
By Tyler Brooks
With excellent hands, skill around the rim, and a nearly immovable base, Meeks will thrive as a traditional low-block scorer in Carolina’s post-oriented offense. He is a polished, conventional baby hook shy from being able to fully overcome his lack of lift and score at will in the post. His proficiency with the outlet pass is a true weapon on Roy Williams’s primary break. Expect him to be even more trigger-happy in hurling full-court strikes this coming season. Meeks must improve defensively. He must establish more fundamentally solid walls over which defenders have to shoot, in addition to improving his on-ball footwork and hedge recovery. Most importantly, he must resist the urge to foul. He developed a bad habit of breaking this Dean Smith commandment last season and it plagued his defensive effectiveness.
By Adrian Atkinson
In terms of on-court/off-court impact, Meeks was clearly the most valuable Heel last season. And, while +/- is a notoriously noisy and imprecise metric, the overwhelming evidence is hard to overlook in this case.
With Meeks on the floor, Carolina had an offensive efficiency of 113.8 and a defensive efficiency of 94.1—19.7 points per 100 possessions better than its opponents. With Meeks on the bench, those respective numbers fell to 110.5 and 107.2—a mere 3.3 points per 100 better than the opposition. An underrated positional defender and space-eater in the paint, Meeks’s most significant impact was on the defensive end of the court. His ability to grab defensive rebounds (DR% of 21.2) and throw terrific outlet passes fuels the UNC break, too: the Heels were significantly faster with Meeks on the court (tempo of 69.7) than without him (67.3).
The key for Meeks, of course, will be putting together a complete season. Last year, the confluence of injuries, illnesses, and general fatigue led to a late-season swoon in production (as seen in the splits below):
Nov-Dec: 22.4 MPG, 12.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 62.4 FG%, 62.9 TS%, 1.6 BPG
Jan-Feb: 25.6 MPG, 12.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 54.9 FG%, 57.5 TS%, 1.1 BPG
March: 20.3 MPG, 7.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 45.8 FG%, 49.2 TS%, 0.9 BPG
But, even as Meeks’s box score productivity dwindled, his +/- impact stayed consistently high. For the Heels to make the Final Four run that fans anticipate, they’ll need a full season of a healthy and energized Meeks on the floor.
“Similar to game planning against Joel James, you have to make sure you don’t allow him to have deep post position - but that's only the beginning. He’s very effective face up offensive player. He can score over both shoulders and that makes him tough to stop in the low post.” – ACC Coach
“His ability to roll off contact in the post is the toughest thing about defending him. Once he gets to your body first he’s able to spin off you and lock you in with a position to score. He doesn’t have great lift, but his ability to face up and knock down jump shots in a zone is impressive.” – ACC Coach
“He’s obviously a great outlet passer and a good passer all around the court. Where I think he’s improved is his offensive rebounding ability because he’s so big he occupies your block outs and allows the threes and fours to come in and get rebounds.” – ACC Coach
“He has really good touch round the basket. He can go both ways. His big thing is being in great shape. You need to try to run him, beat him down the floor and involve him in ball screens. You have to make him work. You can’t let him bury you in the post and make it easy for him defensively or he’ll have a big night on you because he can really finish and knows how to use his body.” – ACC Coach
“He’s a big part of their team – maybe bigger than many realize. He’s got the ability to score the ball inside, knows how to use space and angles and use his body to create that, and he’s got a good eye for seeing the floor as a passer. He’s got some craftiness around the basket. If he can translate that type of game and be able to score over length and athleticism, he can be a pro.” – NBA Scout
“Anytime you have someone with that kind of size, then you immediately look at his hands and his feet and those two things are assets. When you’re talking about Meeks, though, you’re talking about a guy who has yet to prove himself as someone who is going to be a consistent player. This year is as big for him as anyone because it’s time to rely on him for a consistent contribution.” – NBA Scout
“The first thing with a guy like Meeks is you’re going to want to see where his body is – the slightest inkling that he can’t take care of himself throughout the course of the season is a huge negative. We’ve seen players that when they lose weight they need time to adjust – there’s a learning curve in their new physique. If that’s the case with him, this is the year he can prove it.” – NBA Scout
“Kennedy does a good job asserting himself when he gets where he needs to be. He has the skillset you want – it’s the physical attributes that we’re watching. That’s conditioning, motor, ability to get up and down the floor. Those characteristics often show themselves when you evaluate if you’re seeing consistent production. That can be the difference between him dominating the ACC and making it to the pro level or just being a good college player.” – NBA Scout
(J.B. Cissell, Evan Daniels, Sherrell McMillan, Jack Morton, Ben Sherman contributed to this feature.)