Photo credit: Christian Bonin / TSGphoto.com
Note: This is a guest post from Andrew Damelin of TSN.
“I’m just a great teammate.”
Clad in a black warm-up shirt and extra-tight shorts, Kennedy Meeks sprawls over two chairs as he reviews film with assistant coach A.J. Diggs. The Raptors 905 forward is coming off perhaps his best game of the season – 6-for-9 from the field, 12 points, 15 boards, and a +31. The grins and jokes he offers each teammate that passes by betray an ever-growing confidence.
“I try to keep the locker room as lively as possible, keep smiles on people’s faces. that leads to a transition on the court,” he says.
Coming into Saturday’s game against the Windy City Bulls, the 905 are playing their best stretch of basketball, winning four straight and five of their last six, putting them into playoff position. Meeks’ play has helped spearhead the run. He’s averaging 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, including an eye-popping 4.2 on the offensive glass over that stretch.
At 6’10, 277 pounds, Meeks doesn’t exactly out-jump you to get his boards. Instead, he uses a potent combination of instinct, will, and timing.
“(Offensive rebounding) comes natural to me,” he says. “Having a knack is a part of it, having the will to want to give your team another possession.”
That will helped North Carolina take home the 2017 NCAA Championship. Meeks was a monster inside, pulling down a combined 12 offensive rebounds in the Final Four and 41 total boards in the last three rounds. Raptors 905 Head Coach Jerry Stackhouse, another former Tar Heel, took an interest in the power forward the second he became available.
“Right when he didn’t get drafted, I was on the phone talking about him, trying to get him,” Stackhouse says. “I made sure I made a call down to North Carolina to see what was going on. He’s somebody that had been really productive, played at a high level. He’s a champion, he’s a great guy, he’s one of the best personalities we have in our locker room, keeps the guys loose. He’s a leader.”
Stackhouse added that while he’s pleased with Meeks’s growth as a professional, there are still times he has to rein him in.
“He can get a little loose at times, still thinking he’s back on a college campus,” he says. “Understanding that these are guys’s livelihood. We have fun, but when it’s time to step between the lines, get serious, he’s getting better in all these departments.”
There are reasons Meeks went undrafted. One is the evolution of the stretch four and introduction of the stretch five. Guys like Al Horford, Serge Ibaka, and Kevin Love – all around Meeks’ height – can all shoot the three (42.6 3FG%, 38.9 3FG%, 40.9 3FG% respectively). Meeks, meanwhile, only took one three in his entire college career, and hasn’t made one in the G-League (0-for-7).
You might expect that developing the three point shot would be on his radar. And it is.
“(My 3-point shooting) can definitely improve,” he says. “I just shoot’em honestly just to shoot’em sometimes, just to see if I can make it or not. Looking forward to making some. You might see me take a couple today.”
But it’s not just long-range shooting that’s been an issue. Meeks is only finishing at a 59.8% clip within five feet (the NBA’s better power forwards make around 65%). With the jump from the NCAA to the G-League comes a jump in size and athleticism, and sometimes Meeks seems to rush up those bunnies, causing layups to rim out.
Another aspect of Meeks’ game that has followed him since he was a McDonald’s All American in 2013 is fitness. Meeks finished high school at a rumoured 320 pounds, and to his credit, has slimmed down to a (listed) 277 (in training camp, he was below that mark). Setting aside whether or not it appears Meeks needs to drop more weight, his quickness is being tested often every game.
On Saturday, the effort Meeks has made to properly cover the pick and roll is on full display. Shouts of “blue,” indicating a screen is coming on the left side, echo throughout the Hershey Centre. When Meeks has to switch onto the guard, he does a fantastic job contesting shots at the rim, including against Windy City’s scoring machine Antonio Blakeney (34.9 PPG). Blakeney drops 27 on the 905, but has to work for every shot, even though the quickness advantage against Meeks is overt (Blakeney’s six inches shorter, and 80 pounds lighter).
“(Meeks) got better as the game went on,” says Stackhouse. “Kennedy’s thing is just kind of awareness. Pretty much on every play a four or a five is gonna be involved in a pick-and-roll. Understanding he has to be more ready to play. Once he sat down and got into it, he was much better. You know, Blakeney’s a tough cover. When you’ve got a guy with that type of quickness and ball-handling and scoring that he has, it puts your bigs in a bind.
“For the most part, I thought he did a really good job of sitting down and making it tough.”
Saturday’s defensive performance was easily the best Meeks has looked on that end all year. In games past, Meeks could be seen dropping below the free throw line with his man ready to shoot from behind the arc. At North Carolina, Meeks could afford to stay cozy in the paint. But as Raptors 905 extend their winning streak to five, Meeks’ play shows the realization that he has to get more comfortable picking up his man on the perimeter.
Meeks also continued his solid offensive play, pouring in 13 points on 4-for-7 from the field and eight boards, three offensive, in just 22 minutes, earning a 4th quarter DNP thanks to a 25-point lead. On Sunday, he’d put up another double-double as the 905 pushes their winning streak further. The defensive progress was evident again there.
It seems Meeks has a ways to go before getting a shot at the NBA. That’s what the G-League is for, and through 20 games this season, the improvements have been noticeable.
“I tell people all the time, some things just take time,” says Stackhouse. “As much as you wanna try to prod ’em and beat it into ’em and yell at ’em and do all those things, sometimes just their reps is what’s gonna get them to the level of where they are now. And we’re gonna get better.”
Meeks is well on his way.