Paige was asked if his initial beliefs held true at the ACC’s Operation Basketball at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Charlotte on Wednesday.
“I say that with less confidence now just because I’ve seen how much Kennedy has improved,” Paige said. “Joel still looks a lot better than he did last year and like someone that could play the center spot for starter’s minutes, but I’m just not sure at this point. It’s 50-50 in my eyes.”
Sophomore forward Brice Johnson agreed with Paige’s assessment.
“Yeah, it is about 50-50,” Johnson said. “They’re both doing some great things and having good practices. Somebody just has to get that edge at the end of the day.”
Despite the media hoopla surrounding P.J. Hairston, the typical White Team in practice has been Paige, Hairston, Leslie McDonald, James Michael McAdoo and either James or Meeks at the five.
While Joel’s offseason focus primarily centered on mental aspects to build confidence, Meeks was tasked with dropping weight through intense conditioning. He’s carved off 32 pounds since arriving in Chapel Hill this summer and now weighs in at 285 pounds.
“When he gets up and down the court before he gets tired, he’s really effective,” Paige said. “He uses his body well and he’s a lot better scorer than I saw this summer. That was a pleasant surprise to see him be so effective on the low block.”
The weight loss has been critical in allowing Meeks to showcase his skills underneath the basket. Add in a developing level of toughness and the components for early playing time are shining through.
“I’ve never seen somebody tap the ball in so many times the way he does,” Paige said. “And sometimes with our fast break, he’ll just take it out and baseball pass it 75 feet down the court on the money. You’ll probably see a couple of those this year.”
Head coach Roy Williams offered similar praise, although he stressed the stamina issue and the standard freshman learning curve facing his Charlotte, N.C. freshman.
“Kennedy is a really potentially fantastic passing big man,” Williams said. “He is a guy who can score in the low post better than anybody we have right now, especially if he continues to get in shape where he gets the explosiveness, gets the lift.”
While the position battle between Meeks and James is intriguing, the more pertinent aspect is what a solidified five spot would do for the lineup. Provided one of UNC’s two natural centers can lay claim to the starting spot that evaded the Tar Heels’ frontcourt last season, Williams can settle on a rotation with quality depth across the board.
Williams has been able to run sets with two point guards on the floor as well as with McAdoo manning the three spot. The 11th-year UNC head coach told reporters three weeks ago that Isaiah Hicks could also join McAdoo in playing on wing in spot duty, although Paige said on Wednesday that McAdoo’s game is better suited for the perimeter than his rookie teammate’s.
“[McAdoo’s] pretty comfortable out there,” Paige said. “People don’t realize that because he’s never had to do it, but he’s improved his ball handing a lot. We’re not going to expect him to be a playmaker out there, but he can play the three and still get in that 17-foot comfort zone that he likes to play in.”
The lynchpin for Williams’s ability to tinker with his rotation could very well be the outcome of the interior competition between James and Meeks.
“Nobody’s stepped up and taken it yet,” Williams said, adding that James has missed time this preseason due to injury.
If neither emerges as a viable option, then UNC’s options may be limited.
“We don’t know how big we’re going to go,” Paige said. “We could end up playing Mac at the three in stretches and go really big or we could end playing me at the two and Leslie at the three and be a smaller lineup. I’m not sure who’s going to start and I’m not sure who’s going to get a lot of minutes, but it’s definitely up for grabs.”