CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There were times, early last season, when North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo wasn’t sure if he was really needed -- and didn’t know exactly where he fit.
But after flourishing over the last month of the 2011-12 season, then watching four-fifths of last year’s starting lineup leave for the NBA, there’s no question about his role, now: starter, leader, go-to-guy.
“And I really feel I’m ready for it,” the rising sophomore said last week.
That’s not something he (or maybe most of his coaches, teammates or fans) might have said six months ago. One of the top-rated big men in the incoming class of 2011, the 6-foot-9 Virginia product was expected to be a huge bench-bolster behind starters Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Instead, he quickly fell into their shadows. He showed occasional bursts of speed and athleticism, but he was 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.
McAdoo admits he was way too “lackadaisical” in his approach as he struggled to adjust to campus life and college basketball.
“Mentally, I feel like I was out of it,” he said. “I didn’t really tell myself that this team needed me. But as the year went on, I would talk to coach, and talk to the other coaches, and I realized that this team really did need me, and I needed to step up my responses.
“Just because I’m a freshman didn’t mean I could just sit back and respond when I wanted to -- they needed me every day.”
McAdoo acted by focusing more in practice during the latter parts of the ACC season, earning more minutes and a larger role in the rotation. But his confidence and aggression really bloomed during the ACC tournament. When Henson injured his wrist, the freshman started three games (including one in the NCAA tournament).
He averaged 10.6 points and 4.8 rebounds over his final seven games, and it was then, he said, that he realized he might be a legitimate candidate for the NBA draft.
He said he doesn’t know if he was every really “close” to going pro, even though he was still pondering his decision after Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall announced they were leaving early. But “it was something I definitely thought about and prayed about,’’ he said. “It was a decision that everybody dreams about, as a basketball player. But in the end, this was the right decision, to come back.”
Williams agreed, and his opinion was verified after he spoke to 21 NBA teams on McAdoo’s behalf. All of them thought McAdoo should return to school -- although all also predicted he would be a first-round draft pick if he went pro.
Especially after his late-season surge.
“You could take his number off and do some things to hide who it was,” Williams said. “And watching those last 10 games to the first 10 games, there’s nobody in the world that would say it’s the same kid.”
Now, McAdoo is trying to build on that last month -- knowing he has to be the team’s first option in the post. With Henson and Zeller gone, rising sophomores Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons are the only other forwards with experience, but theirs was limited last season. Incoming freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson will also be battling for time, and the other starting big man position. But everyone will be looking to McAdoo to lead that group.
“James Michael, down the stretch was pretty doggone impressive for us,’’ Williams said. “He needs to be even more impressive for us in the future.”
To that end, McAdoo has spent plenty of time in the weight room, “on being consistent in there, being the best in the there,’’ he said. He’s also working on learning more positions on the floor, on getting more comfortable with the ball in his hands, on his defensive quickness, and on taking smart shots.
Part of the latter has meant studying game film, although he’s limited his reviews to his final eight or so games.
“I kind of feel like I want to throw away the other part of the season,” he said, shaking his head.
Now that he knows where he fits, and that he’s really going to be needed, maybe he can.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.