CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- James Michael McAdoo has started exactly three games in his North Carolina career. Yet over the past month, the sophomore forward has been named to the pre-season ACC first team by the league media, dubbed a pre-season All-America by The Sporting News, called the top breakout player in the country by CBSSports.com, and listed as one of the 10 most important players in the nation by ESPN.com.
So how does he deal with all of the expectations?
“It weird, because I’ve gone from being a freshman, just along for the ride, to being a sophomore … who is one of the leaders of this team,’’ McAdoo said last month. “But I’m not going to put that pressure on myself to carry this team. Some games I might need to do a little bit more; some I might need to do a little bit less. I’m just working every day in practice … and as long as I go out there and do what I’m capable of doing, I know we can do well.”
For a long, long stretch last season, McAdoo admits, he didn’t live up to his capabilities. After arriving on campus rated one of the top big men in the Class of 2011, he quickly fell into the shadows of starters Tyler Zeller and John Henson, and admits he had an inconsistent, sometimes-lackadaisical approach.
He showed tantalizing bursts of speed and athleticism, but he was also so tentative at times that coach Roy Williams once threatened those on the bench with extra running if McAdoo didn’t dunk the ball during one game.
“It was rough,’’ McAdoo said of his adjustment to college life. “I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard, I’m not going to say there weren’t nights when I wanted to pack my bags and go back to Northern Virginia and be a regular kid. But I love basketball, and there were certain things I had to realize that I had to do, like focusing every day in practice.”
Fans and foes might not have noticed the Norfolk, Va., native's turnaround in games until late February, but his attitude change actually began in late January. After a heart-to-heart with his coaches, McAdoo started putting his all into practice -- running faster, concentrating harder. His “just-get-through-this” attitude turned into a “let’s-get-better” focus. Teammates even commented that McAdoo started competing like the McAdoo they had expected (and missed) from Day 1.
Over his last seven games, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 10.6 points and 4.8 rebounds (including three starts for the injured Henson) -- impressing NBA scouts so much that he would have been a first-round draft pick had he opted to leave school early.
But after plenty of research and discussions and soul-searching after UNC lost in the NCAA Elite Eight, McAdoo chose to return to Chapel Hill, he said, because “I just wanted to enjoy this time, enjoy college with my teammates, the coaching staff. I just wanted to experience success here at the college level before I ever thought about trying to go to the NBA.”
For 11th-ranked UNC to experience that success this season, though, the pressure will be on McAdoo -- whether or not he feels it. With four of last season’s starters now playing in the NBA, McAdoo returns not only as the team’s most experienced post player, but as a go-to guy on and off the court.
He’s embraced that leadership role by taking the freshmen big men under his wing and spending more time in the weight room, because he knows he’ll be counting on to play more minutes.
Comparing this time last year to now, “I would say my head’s on straight, and I know what to expect,’’ he said. “Last year, I was out there like a chicken with his head cut off. But this year, I’m so much more at ease. Practice is so much more enjoyable, and I feel like I’m getting better every day. And not just me, I feel like I’m helping the freshmen. Last year, I kind of had a back-seat role. But this year, I feel more like it’s my team.”
And that anything is possible for his team, and himself.
“I do believe I played pretty well at the end of the year, but I feel I could have played so much better,’’ McAdoo said. “And that’s what has me excited about this year. I’m going to be able to go out there with the opportunity, and hopefully the work I’ve put in will pay off.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.