by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL -- What's in a name?
For James Michael McAdoo, it's an inspiration.
And a commemoration.
"I feel like no one has a cooler name than I do because it carries so much weight to it—especially here in North Carolina, right down the road from where my father and his friends grew up...and in Chapel Hill, where another McAdoo played,'' the Tar Heels junior forward said recently. "My name has a lot of meaning to a lot of people, including me."
But the goal, for the 6-foot-9, now 235-pound athlete from Norfolk, Va., is to make it more meaningful, still.
After two seasons of ups and downs—breakaway bursts of athletic potential melded with frustrating stretches of rushed miscues—McAdoo finally appears ready to live up to all of the expectations that have followed him since he committed to UNC as a high school junior.
There remain plenty of questions for the soft-spoken history major who has twice delayed early entry into the NBA draft: Can he slow down enough to cut down on turnovers while shooting a higher percentage? What is his true position? Can he be the Tar Heels' go-to guy?
But after hundreds hours of working on ballhandling, free throws and jumpers during the offseason; healing a back injury that pained him last winter more than he ever let on; and gaining comfort with his place on the team; this may be the season fans finally see the player they envisioned when they first heard his name.
BEING A McADOO
There were times, though, during his freshman season when McAdoo's game was barely recognizable, even to the people who knew him best. He showed flashes of his speed and instinct, but all too often, he was tentative around the basket, looked unsure of his role, and in retrospect, he admits, was too lackadaisical in his approach.
He eventually showed why he had earned five-star recruiting billing when he averaged 10.6 points and 4.8 rebounds over the last seven games of 2011-12, the season the injury plagued Tar Heels just missed the Final Four. But up until then, "He struggled so much, I even told his mom and dad, 'Is that your son out there?'" UNC coach Roy Williams said. "It was just so overwhelming for him."
McAdoo said he was never trying to live up to expectations, but perhaps he suffered from them as a freshman, just the same.
After all, the buzz about him reached a roar in 2009, when he officially chose the Tar Heels. And the chatter wasn't just about stats or potential, but genetics: His father's second cousin, Bob, was a star for the Tar Heels in the early 1970s before going on to a championship NBA career and enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. McAdoo's parents, Ronnie and Janet, met when they were both power forwards at Old Dominion in the late 1970s and early '80s. And his older sister, Kelsey, played Charlotte.
"We all have basketball backgrounds, but we never thought that he had anything to live up to, never wanted him to feel that way—and I don't think he did,'' said McAdoo's mom, Janet, who was the No. 1 center in the country and played on the Monarchs' Final Four team her freshman season. "We've just always wanted him to be himself."
Thus, McAdoo played plenty of other sports growing up—baseball, football, soccer—as he tried to find his inevitable niche in the athletics world. But it didn't take long for him to learn that the basketball court was where he was at his best and most comfortable.
He started playing on the Norfolk Christian varsity as an eighth grader, and made the Norfolk Express AAU team as a 13-year old. At age 16, he became the youngest player ever to win the USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year award; and in 2010, he was co-MVP of the McDonald's High School All-American game.
Throughout it all, his dad was beside him on the court or on the sidelines, working with him on his moves, his focus and his composure. His mom was his biggest supporter in the stands—trying to correct him, McAdoo remembered, only when he'd miss a free throw. Even so, Ronnie McAdoo, an ODU Hall of Famer known as a physical force in the lane during college and pro playing days in Europe, insists James Michael boasts more of his mom's athletic playing style.
McAdoo, for his part, thinks he inherited the best of both.
"It's definitely been a blessing, growing up in a gym, growing up in a basketball family,'' McAdoo said. "It's something I don't take for granted, and it's something, God-willing, that my kids will want to do one day—more McAdoos on the court.
"But I feel like, at the end of the day, the best thing they do is tell me, 'It's just a game.'...They give me perspective, remind me that it's all in His hands, support me no matter what. They inspire me."
BEING 'JAMES MICHAEL'
One of the most inspirational stories that McAdoo holds most personal: the tragic deaths of his namesakes, James and Michael McPherson, who grew up in Mebane, N.C. They were more like his dad's brothers than best friends.
In April, 1979, James and Ronnie were teammates at ODU, and Michael was in the Navy at Portsmouth, Va. The trio planned to travel from Norfolk back to North Carolina for the weekend, but when the McPherson brothers knocked on Ronnie's door around 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, he delayed his trip home.
"I was pretty tired, so I said, 'Tell my mom I'll see her next week,'' Ronnie remembered. "And I went back to sleep."
Hours later, a state trooper knocked on his dorm door; the McPhersons had been killed in a car accident on Highway 58 near South Hill. To this day, Ronnie McAdoo struggles not to choke up when he thinks about that moment and speaks about his friends.
"It's not something that we talk about very often, but I know it stayed with him; I know what they mean to him,'' McAdoo said. "I'll always be thankful that my dad was not in that car, but I can't imagine what it was like for him, to lose people so close to him."
McAdoo never knew his godfathers-in-spirit, but he learned enough about them to begin using his given name "James Michael," instead of his shortened one, "James," just before he arrived at Carolina. Janet McAdoo says that choice shows a lot about her son's maturity and respect for his father. McAdoo said it simply seemed like the right thing to do.
And that feeling, he said, has been reinforced every game—including last season, when he played out of position at center for long stretches, and with back pain in February and March. Despite the discomfort, despite fan criticism, Ronnie McAdoo said, his son persevered in a fashion of which the McPhersons would be proud.
"When I score and they call my name, it's something that rings home, just knowing that to so many other people it's just my name, but to my father it's a reminder of his two late best friends growing up,'' McAdoo said.
"It's a name I'm proud of, memories of two people I hope I help live on, in a way."
But as much as his ID is a legacy to his family and a bow to his father's late friends, it also now belongs to a 20-year-old looking to find his own identity, to make a name for himself.
To that end, McAdoo spent this past summer focused on the weight room and the court, turning down summer trips to the beach and a possible chance to play for USA Basketball. He wanted to increase his strength, work on his footwork and jumper—and, as strange as it seems, focus on slowing down.
One of the reasons he had so many turnovers (team-high 96) and a low-for-his-position shooting percentage (44.5) last season, Williams said, is that he rushed too much.
"He was always trying to go so fast—go to the basket so fast, get the shot off so fast, [so much so] that you lose being fundamentally sound,'' Williams said. "He and I have had great conversations about it, and he understands that the more he slows down and takes that extra split second to get his feet set, the more he takes that extra split second to get a grip on the basketball, then his shot has a much greater shot of going in.
"His athleticism and his ability to run and the whole bit is at as high a level as it can possibly be. The quality of the kid is as high a level as it can possibly be. He wants to succeed badly, and he's pushed himself into rushing. I told him one time, one of John Wooden's great statements that I love is, 'Be quick, don't hurry.' And that fits James Michael's needs more than anything I've ever given him."
It will help, McAdoo said, that his back—which grew so stiff and sore last spring it was uncomfortable to get out of a car and sit up straight in class-is back to 100 percent, and that he's learned stretching and weight room techniques to help make sure it stays that way. After averaging 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last season, he's also more comfortable playing any one of three positions.
With the departure of four-fifths of the starting lineup from his freshman season, McAdoo knew that opposing defenses were going to be aimed at him in 2012-13. But when a consistent big man failed to emerge, McAdoo bore even more the brunt, getting most of the opposing muscle aimed straight at him, too.
By adding about 10 pounds and working on low-post moves, he said he'll be more prepared to play the '5,' if necessary, in 2013-14. He's hoping, though, though he'll be able to return to his more-expected '4' position—and maybe, with the team thinner at the wing position, try the '3' as well.
"People don't know how well James Michael can shoot 3-pointers because they haven't really seen him do it yet,'' Ronnie McAdoo said. "But he is that versatile."
Asked where exactly he thinks he fits in the system—power forward? Wing?—McAdoo smiled: "I think this will be the year that really decides that, for myself.''
He added: "I've put so much time in the gym this summer, just working on...ballhandling, my perimeter shooting, but also, my post work and stuff like that. That's not to say I'm in the gym doing drop-step dunks, because that's going to be a lot harder for me to do than someone like Joel [James], but definitely going into this year, knowing the situation, knowing that coach knows what I'm capable of doing, and knowing that I know what I'm capable of doing, I think the biggest thing is I've got to go out there and perform, no matter what position I'm playing."
Williams said the team will need a little bit of everything out of McAdoo: some low-post scoring, some three-point shooting, fewer turnovers, his patented mid-court steals, better defense, more consistency.
"There is something to the question, 'Has he scratched the surface?' Because I think he can get so much better,'' Williams said.
McAdoo agrees, and acknowledged he'll have to keep improving in order to really earn a reputation for himself at this level and the next.
What's in a name?
"I just want to win games,'' McAdoo said. "That's what I want to be known for."