In the age of one-and-dones, Kennedy Meeks has been a part of the North Carolina men’s basketball team for what seems like an eternity.
The senior forward has been a lot of things in his career — an instant-impact first year; a slimmed down, 2.0 edition in successive years; and head coach Roy Williams’ favorite player to badger for inconsistent effort.
But this season, those versions of Kennedy Meeks are nothing but a memory. He’s averaging career highs in points (13.1) and rebounds (9.8), and he’s helped UNC become one of the best rebounding teams in college basketball history.
“He grabs everything,” first-year forward Tony Bradley said.
After losing Brice Johnson last season, one of the biggest questions facing UNC was how to replace Johnson’s missing production. Coming into Thursday's game against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels were outrebounding opponents by an average of 14.2 per game — good for the best in school history and second-best nationwide since 1980.
A season ago, Johnson went for 19 points and 17 rebounds against Virginia Tech. In Thursday night’s 91-72 win, Meeks turned in a similar statline with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
He’s averaging 9.8 rebounds per game, which is only 0.6 fewer than Johnson’s senior average — though it hasn’t quite been enough to knock Williams off his case. Williams says part of the reason his team’s rebounding numbers are so high is Meeks and others play “patty cake” with the ball under the basket.
“I don’t think it’s a number, I just think he wants us to get every rebound — even though that’s kind of impossible,” Meeks said. “I think he would prefer that.”
Meeks has always been able to box out well thanks to his frame, which is the first and most fundamental step of rebounding. He’s also been healthier this season than the past two years, when a knee injury hampered his effectiveness. He says he can see the biggest difference on the offensive glass, where he has more explosion and mobility to pursue missed shots. Yet the biggest reason for his turnaround has been effort.
Up until this season, Meeks had been labeled as a player with an inconsistent motor. But this season, effort has sparked Meeks’ improvement, and his teammates have taken notice.
“He’s just playing way harder I think,” junior wing Justin Jackson said. “And if he doesn’t get the ball, he goes straight to the backboards.”
While junior Theo Pinson is UNC’s designated energy guy, Meeks has emerged as the No. 2 in that role while Pinson has been injured. It's been in large part due to his effort — not only in games, but in practice.
The Tar Heels have answered many of the questions that surrounded them after the national title loss, and in many ways they have shown the potential to be even better this season. Though there won’t be a final answer for a while, Meeks is sure he knows what will lead to the right one.
“It’s just giving it effort,” Meeks said. “And the rest will take care of itself.”
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