When the North Carolina starting lineup was announced during player introductions against Elon, Seventh Woods’ name was not called.
In UNC men’s basketball’s second game of the season, the point guard was instead seated on the bench. He clapped for his teammates, including one who starts at his position — Coby White.
Woods’ name wasn’t called in North Carolina’s season opener against Wofford, nor in an exhibition game against Mount Olive. Now a junior, Woods plays backup. In fact, in his North Carolina career, he has yet to start a single game.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Woods was one of the most anticipated high school basketball players of all time. As a 14-year-old, he gained national renown following the release of a viral video of his dunks. From there his star rose. He was compared — unfairly, perhaps — to LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
Woods is strapped into a personal rollercoaster that has seen precipitous peaks and reciprocal drops. At every lurch, he is hounded by the expectations of those around him — fans, teammates, the media. Everybody puts pressure on Seventh Woods.
Except for Seventh Woods.
“I’m just really going out there and trying to play basketball,” Woods said. “There’s no pressure because the expectation I have for myself, that’s the only thing that really matters.”
From reluctant star, to the next Russell Westbrook, to backup point guard, the unassuming kid from Columbia, S.C, is ready for whatever the next twist brings.
'Everybody wanted a piece of Seventh Woods'
In all five years that Mark McClam coached Woods at Hammond School, he never saw his player talk trash.
“He was just a quiet player,” McClam said. “His actions spoke for himself on the court.”
In high school, Woods never complained to his coach about teammates, about not getting enough shots, about anything. And he had never once talked to a player on another team.
That is, until Hammond played in the South Carolina AAA state championship game against Northwood Academy in 2015.
A Northwood player had been talking trash to Woods all game. Toward the end of the game, Woods beat his man, scored a layup on a finger roll and turned back to look at the offending loudmouth.
“‘Did you see that?’” McClam recalls Woods saying. “That was the extent of his trash talking in five years. He said it with a smile and just kind of ran back.”
The fact that his coach had seen Woods talk to an opponent only one time speaks to Woods’ character. He’s quiet, humble, unassuming. Which is why — putting aside the packed gyms and media following — you would never have known that Woods was a national phenomenon.
It started in April 2014, when Hoopmixtape released a highlight video of Woods’ dunks. The video was viewed over 15 million times. Woods was 14 years old, and said he didn’t seek out the enormous spotlight.
“Honestly, when it came out, I wasn’t embarrassed by it, but I’m not an attention seeker so I wasn’t a big fan of it like that,” Woods said.
Though Woods didn’t ask for the attention, it surrounded him all the same. The fame meant that Hammond played in sold-out gyms nearly every game, and that opponents had Hammond circled on their calendar.
“Because of the notoriety, everybody wanted a piece of Seventh Woods. Everybody wanted to guard him, and everybody wanted to show him up,” McClam said. “So he had to deal with all that stuff for years.”
Yet as Woods’ career rolled on — he won a state championship in February 2015 then committed to North Carolina later that year — he began to see the first signs of a pest that would come to plague his college career: injury.
He played through a high ankle sprain in 2015, then his senior season in 2016, Woods suffered a bone bruise on his knee. Those injuries set off an unfortunate trend that Woods has been unable to shake. The persisting knee injury also meant Woods would enter his first year of college play banged up.
'People had expectations for me'
It was a night in late August, 2016, and most students had just moved back onto UNC’s campus. Seventh Woods was doing what plenty of other first-years did. He went out to parties.
But, because Woods is a well-known basketball player, and because the fraternity house that hosted the party happened to have a basketball goal outside, Woods' night included dunking on another first-year student (me).
The incident is in many ways indicative of Woods' journey. Though it brought still more fame, Woods was, at the time, still battling that knee injury. It had kept him out of team conditioning exercises.
"It kind of blew up at the wrong moment though," Woods said. "I was hurt, so I couldn't condition, so coach kind of got on me like that."
Woods adds quickly that he didn't get in any real trouble with head coach Roy Williams. But, just a couple of weeks later, Woods suffered an ankle sprain playing a game of pickup. The injuries bothered him throughout an unremarkable debut season.
Woods played third-string point guard behind Joel Berry II and Nate Britt. He averaged 1.5 points in only 7.7 minutes per game. His season-high came in a game against Radford, when he scored nine points.
Such a season was far below what most had expected of Woods, who came into North Carolina ranked by ESPN as a top-60 recruit. Woods bristled against the standards others projected onto him.
"People had expectations for me based on what they had seen in the videos," Woods said. "I think the people who did have the expectations are people who didn't understand the translation from high school to college and the position I was put in."
Woods' struggles continued into his sophomore season. In the first month of the 2017-2018 season, Woods scored more than four points only once. He split time in the backup point guard spot with first-year Jalek Felton and saw his minutes dwindle.
It all came to a head when Woods went down late in a November game against Michigan. The injury bug bit Woods again, this time worse than ever before. Woods suffered a stress fracture in his foot, and he missed two months of the season. When he came back, things never clicked. He scored five total points in the remaining 13 games of the season.
In low times, he would call his parents, who often drove from Columbia to Chapel Hill to see him. During that stretch, Woods lost his confidence, which he says is key to being a successful player.
"I lacked that in my first two years, especially after my injury last year," he said.
'If I'm healthy, I'm a different player'
Through Woods' injury-plagued sophomore season, he accepted his fate and began to learn from the experience. He studied film, he watched games and he picked the brain of Kendall Marshall — who won the Bob Cousy award for the nation's best point guard in 2012 and now is working with the program.
All of that set into motion a summer of improvement for Woods. In 2018, Woods is now fully healthy for the first time in his career. During practice this summer, which often features former Tar Heels who now play in the professional ranks, Woods has worked on his on-ball defense and limiting turnovers. But he's also increased his confidence.
"I felt like there were days when I was the best player on the court, even with the pros being here," Woods said. "My confidence level has exceeded the points that I thought it could this summer."
In the offseason, Woods has shown flashes of what made him so famous in the first place. During North Carolina's exhibition trip to the Bahamas, Woods cocked back and threw down a massive dunk against the Bahamas All-Stars.
Woods says that, looking back on the dunk, it was an announcement that he has returned.
"A lot of people didn't expect me to be able to get up like that still. But like I said, if I'm healthy, I'm a different player," Woods said.
Wiliams named White his starting point guard, but Woods hasn't let that decision deter him.
"His mental game is strong," White said after UNC's win over Elon. "He doesn't let any of that bother him, and I respect him for that. He's all about playing basketball and all about winning."
So far in the 2018-19 season, Woods still hasn't found a scoring touch (five combined points). But he's doing exactly what he worked on this summer — protecting the ball. Through two games, Woods has eight assists and only one turnover. He has looked comfortable on the court and contributed on beautiful, behind the arc lob passes in consecutive games.
Even though Woods isn't starting, he has an important role mentoring White and playing significant minutes, even in a backup role. As a veteran, he'll also be in position to take over as a starter if White struggles. White has plenty of natural ability but still looks to Woods for guidance.
Woods has a clear goal for this season. He doesn't expect to be an All-American, he doesn't expect to average 15 points per game and he doesn't expect to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. He set a goal, a realistic one that he knows he is capable of reaching.
"I'm trying to be the most improved player in the conference," he said.
Through it all, Woods has learned the hard way that the only person he has to live up to is himself. Now that he's figured that out, he's at peace with himself and his role on the UNC basketball team.
Though Woods may never be the next Russell Westbrook, he's just fine being the only Seventh Woods.
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