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Two similar big men hope for a similar result once more

June 20, 2017 Columns No Comments

The national championship game had a lot of storylines this year. Many revolved around the two teams, but there was an interesting similarity between the two teams. Both had a lumbering senior big man patrolling the paint, both of whom have been underrated in a fashion in which neither might have been back in a bygone era. Those big men are intriguing prospects as the NBA Draft comes closer and closer.

And yet, North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks and Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski were in very different places a year ago.

Last year, Meeks declared for the NBA Draft, but didn’t sign with an agent. He went through the process, took in all the information, and decided his best move was to come back to Chapel Hill. There, he would lead a loaded frontcourt since Justin Jackson also opted to return after declaring without an agent, and they would welcome a promising young post player in Tony Bradley. The question was how good the Tar Heels’ perimeter would be, and we found that out – more than good enough, led by Joel Berry II.

Karnowski, meanwhile, was not a lock to return to Spokane – in fact, such a return was probably a long shot. He was still trying to work his way back from a back injury so serious, he wasn’t sure he would play again, especially given his weight. Around this time last year, he announced he would return for his senior year, but still had work to do.

Both put in plenty of work and saw their teams reach the national championship game in part from their efforts. Now comes the question of what their futures hold.

Once upon a time, Karnowski in particular would be sure to get a lot of NBA interest. Big men were all the rage about a generation ago, and teams clearly needed one. The game has changed even in the NBA, though, to the point where nowadays teams play guys who are more like power forwards – and have that kind of size – in the middle instead. Among the final four NBA teams this year, only Golden State and San Antonio start big men who even remotely resemble a true center by size, and the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge doesn’t play much with his back to the basket. The Boston Celtics start 6’10” Al Horford in the middle and the Cleveland Cavaliers counter with the 6’9″ Tristan Thompson.

With that, Karnowski is sure to get looks in the second round of the draft, and if not drafted, to get a summer league invitation. But he may go overseas, something the Polish import can do quite easily not being originally from the United States.

Karnowski is naturally a force inside, as you might expect with his body. Don’t let that be all that informs your opinion of him, however, as he’s a lot more skilled than he gets credit for. His passing is very underrated, whether out of the post or facing the basket, and while he won’t shoot much, he can hit from a little outside the paint.

Meeks’ improved conditioning showed all year as he was even more of a force down low than earlier in his career. He posted 13 double-doubles on the season and finished with over 1,000 career rebounds after finishing third in the ACC in rebounding this season. The 6’9″ post player also converted over 54 percent of his field goal attempts, which put him behind only Wake Forest forward John Collins among ACC players.

In the national semifinal game, Meeks was unstoppable in helping the Tar Heels knock off Oregon. He scored 25 points on 11-13 shooting and had 14 rebounds, basically coming up with the game of a lifetime when it counted most, or almost anyway since the game two nights later would count a little more.

The semifinal game showed what Meeks is now capable of. He can naturally use his body, though in the NBA that will be the case to a little less of a degree since the players there are bigger, stronger and more physically mature. His improved conditioning makes a big difference for him, and rebounding is one thing that translates.

All of that means it would not be a surprise if someone snags him in the second round on Thursday night. He could earn a roster spot and help a team with his rebounding in a reserve/spot starting role. Whereas Karnowski will play in the middle at the next level, Meeks would likely be a power forward even in an era of smaller centers.

A year after Meeks and Karnowski were in very different places, they were in the same place, on the same big stage, playing for the ultimate goal. On Thursday night, just two and a half months later, both hope to be in the same place once more: NBA draftees.

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