James Michael McAdoo is still learning how to be North Carolina's go-to guy, from facing high expectations as an NBA prospect to overcoming defenses aiming to frustrate him.
At times, he's been an athletic big man who beats defenders to the rim, flies into the paint to crash the boards and reliably knocks down a face-up jumper. At others, he looked tentative and content to blend in instead of seizing the lead role.
But McAdoo describes himself as a young player making gradual improvement that mirrors his team's oncourt growth.
"I'm not worried about myself in general," McAdoo said. "I've been playing basketball my whole life. All I know is to just keep playing and keep working. I feel like I'm confident and I know as long as I do what I'm supposed to do — that I'm showing up every day ready to work and putting in the extra time — that everything will take care of itself."
At first glance, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound sophomore from Norfolk, Va., is right on schedule heading into Saturday night's trip to No. 18 North Carolina State. He's averaging 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds to lead the team in both categories and he's scored in double figures in every game but one for the Tar Heels (13-5, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who have won three straight and are chasing their 14th straight win against the rival Wolfpack (15-4, 4-2).
Yet bring up McAdoo to fans or poke around online, and much of the talk centers on what McAdoo isn't doing.
He's not a dominant scorer. He's not an elite rebounder. He's a tweener who lacks a true back-to-the-basket game and some polish on the perimeter.
He's also gone from playing behind three NBA first-round picks as a freshman to the top of the scouting report.
"The defense was never aimed at him — we still had Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and those guys," UNC coach Roy Williams said Friday. "It's a lot easier when the defense is not aimed to stop you. And now who do they talk about? They talk about James Michael and Reggie (Bullock). It's hard to handle that."
The results have been solid but unspectacular so far.
McAdoo — a relative of former UNC great Bob McAdoo — had career highs of 26 points and 14 rebounds in the opener against Gardner-Webb, but he hasn't scored 20 points since and has managed just five double-doubles all year. He's shooting just 45 percent from the field and 58 percent from the foul line.
Still, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried sees improvement.
"I think even lately in the last couple of weeks, to me it seems like he is a lot more aggressive and he has taken on the responsibility to be one of the hardest-working players on the floor," Gottfried said. "When I watch him, I sense more urgency from him than I did early on. ... It just seems like he's a lot more involved in everything."
He also remains an unselfish player who doesn't dominate the ball and has taken at least 15 shots just five times all year, which seems to conflict with the expectations for an NBA prospect.
"There's times at Carolina — and I've never said this to him — I'm sitting here and I'm saying, 'OK James Michael, it's time for you to take over now,'" said Ronnie McAdoo, James Michael's father who played at Old Dominion and professionally overseas. "But he's never been that type of player.
"The most amazing thing is everybody criticizes him for being this low-key, not bang-bang-hit-you-in-the-chest guy, but it works for James Michael. He's been extremely successful with the way he plays."
McAdoo, who turned 20 this month, was a McDonald's All-American who looked lost in primarily spot duty for much of his rookie season. But things changed when Henson's wrist injury thrust McAdoo into major minutes through the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
McAdoo blossomed and built confidence in March, ending with a team-high 15 points in the loss to Kansas in a regional final. He flirted with entering the draft before returning to school and the spotlight that awaited.
Michael Allen, McAdoo's high school coach at Norfolk Christian, said it's a place the soft-spoken McAdoo has never been comfortable.
"He wants to be one of the guys," Allen said. "He wants to show up and do his job and go home. That's just his personality. You're not going to change it. Part of you wishes he was just a little meaner ... but at the same time that's just his makeup. It is what it is. I don't consider it a weakness. That's just the way God made him."
Still, McAdoo knows he can do more and he's determined to tune out any outside chatter that says otherwise. On Wednesday night, that meant sticking around the Smith Center to shoot extra free throws after going 4-for-10 against Georgia Tech.
That mindset was good enough to get him here. He believes it can take him further.
"Coming in knowing that I was going to play big minutes, I think that's something I really had to prepare for mentally this summer," McAdoo said. "But nothing could really help me other than going out there and playing it. We still have so much more room for improvement, me personally and as a team. I'm very confident with where I am right now and I'm happy with where I am right now."