by Aaron Beard, The Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL - Kennedy Meeks knew he'd have a long fight to shed pounds and get in better shape before ever playing a game for North Carolina.
Yet the freshman big man wasn't deterred by the challenge, either.
"I'm in too deep now - there's no turning back," Meeks said with a chuckle. "... I'm not afraid at all because it's all going to be a life-changing thing that I have to deal with, that I'm going to accept, that's going to be my life for a long time."
Coach Roy Williams has touted the McDonald's All-American's skills as a rebounder and outlet passer that can ignite the Tar Heels' transition attack. The 6-foot-9, 285-pound forward from Charlotte - along with the arrival of Associated Press state prep player of the year and fellow McDonald's All-American Isaiah Hicks of Oxford - should bolster a frontcourt that struggled enough to have Williams play a four-guard lineup for the final month of last season.
"He has great vision and a great feel for the game and passes instinctively," Williams said. "He really has good moves around the basket. But if you get in better shape, then that conditioning allows you to be more explosive and be more successful at this level."
Team strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratian said he is working with Meeks on everything from what to do in the weight room to changes to his diet. During Meeks' first month at UNC this summer, Sahratian said he got numerous text messages a day from the freshman asking whether it was OK to eat certain foods.
Nakhia Meeks, Kennedy's mother, said her son even took time to call Sahratian before ordering a steak while out at dinner with her cousin.
So far, she said her son is down about 20 pounds.
"This is the road we've got to try to take," Sahratian said. "You've got to make little turns here and there. There might be detours and roadblocks. We've got to find things to overcome some things. But I think if the kids work hard and they're dedicated and do everything you ask of them, they'll get there."
Meeks sounded eager to put in the work.
"I think I can be polishing everything," he said. "Nobody's a perfect player. But I think once I get my conditioning in check, then I think my moves will be there. I'll be able to run the floor just like everybody else, and faster. As far as coming in the post, I think I'll be stronger. I'll be thinking faster, reaction time will be faster. I think all of it will come once I work with Jonas."
Meeks, 18, was a three-time AP all-state pick and led West Charlotte to a Class 4-A state championship, pulling down 19 rebounds in the 2011 title victory then following with 21 more in the 2012 final. He chose North Carolina over Georgetown in November.
In his final weeks at West Charlotte, Meeks worked on his game, ran and even did pushups at night in his bedroom to prepare for his college transition. He also played tennis, a sport Meeks lettered in at West Charlotte.
Brenda Richmond, Meeks' great aunt, said the family has also tried to help prepare Meeks for the pressures that come with being an Atlantic Coast Conference recruit. That included helping him tune out "Overrated!" fan chants or negative online comments about him and build a "thicker skin."
"You can't dwell on what they think about you," Richmond said. "And you don't even have to go out there and prove them wrong. You've just got to go out there and be you - and that means you're going to go and play the best basketball you can, the best classes you can do, the best grades - that's all that matters."
Meeks, for his part, seemed more worried about adjusting to life away from home for the first time than whether he can succeed with the Tar Heels.
"I think over this next (few) months until the first game of the season, I think I'll be in the best shape of my life," he said. "And I'll do whatever they need me to do."