UK Men's Basketball

As recruit, Meeks nearly shot down

The Jodie Meeks who plays at Georgia on Sunday is not the same Jodie Meeks who left the Peach State three years ago.

In his former incarnation, Meeks led Norcross High to the Georgia Class 5A state championship. But he failed to lead skeptics to believe he could excel as a major college player. Now he plays at Georgia five days after scoring more points in a game than any player has ever scored for Kentucky, lest we forget, the winningest program in college basketball history.

"For us, it's vindication that he is a good player," his father, Orestes Meeks, said late last week. "He's been an underdog pretty much his whole career."

It's hard to think of Jodie Meeks as an underdog, especially now. His 54 points at Tennessee on Tuesday broke Dan Issel's 39-year-old school record. The next day, Issel noted how defenses had a better chance of containing All-America candidate Patrick Patterson than they do Meeks.

"When you try to shut down a big guy inside, you can surround him (and) make him come out to get the ball in areas he's not comfortable," Issel said. "There doesn't seem to be an area on the court Jodie isn't comfortable."

Meeks' recent numbers are, to borrow a term he used in Knoxville, mind-boggling. In the last seven games, he's made 65 of 122 shots (53.3 percent). He's made 40 of 76 three-point attempts (52.6 percent) and — prepare your mind for boggling — 52 of 54 free throws. That's 96.3-percent accuracy from the foul line, a marksmanship that includes a streak of 34 straight makes (third most in UK history) he'll look to extend at Georgia.

Now get ready to have your mind stuffed into a Cuisinart: On Thursday, Georgia Coach Dennis Felton explained why skeptics questioned Meeks as a top-flight college prospect.

"I know it might be amazing to hear, but if he had a hole in his game, shooting from the perimeter was that hole," Felton said. "He did start turning the corner in that area in the last year of high school, but I don't think anything to indicate the kind of explosiveness he's exhibiting now as a deep shooter."

Eddie Martin, who coached Meeks at Norcross High, confirmed that several college recruiters questioned the player's jump shot. Martin told them that Meeks could shoot, but there was no need if he drove for layups.

The tag stuck like Nathaniel Hawthorne's scarlet letter. No Georgia Mr. Basketball (that honor went to Javaris Crittenton of Southwest Atlanta Christian). No McDonald's All-America team. In fact, no invitation to any high school All-Star game except for the Derby Festival, which is automatic for any UK signee.

"My heart went out to him," Orestes Meeks said of his son. "I told him, 'You've got to use that and go out there and show everybody what you got.' "

But for what college team?

Recruiting analysts dismissed Meeks as a prospect. "Some really top guy said Jodie wouldn't even get a high Division I scholarship," Orestes Meeks said. "I told the guy, 'I'm glad you're not giving out scholarships.' "

An executive with IBM and once a world-class track athlete, Orestes Meeks used humor to mask the inner ache.

Of the McDonald's All-America snub, Martin said of Meeks and his parents, "I know they were hurt. They were disappointed."

Brick Oettinger, an analyst for the Prep Stars recruiting service, is on the 34-member panel that selects the 24 McDonald's All-Americans each year. He said Meeks didn't make the preliminary cut to 40 candidates because of those jump-shot questions.

Prep Stars rated Meeks at No. 125 on its final list of the top prospects in the 2006 high school class.

"Obviously, we were wrong in terms of development," said Oettinger, who said the panel made the same mistake with Stephen Curry of Davidson. "Everyone missed on him. No one had him ranked to say, hey, he'll get 54 points at Tennessee."

When a reporter asked Meeks about newfound speculation about being named National Player of the Year, he only said, "I don't see myself as being legendary."

Of being linked to Curry, another such candidate, Meeks said, "I'll let you guys decide that. He's a great player. You can't take anything away from him."

Orestes Meeks only wishes his son had been so cautious in answering reporters' questions a few years ago.

The elder Meeks saw an innocent answer to a reporter's question as the genesis of the questions surrounding Jodie's shooting. A reporter for an Internet site asked Meeks, the high school player, what part of his game he wanted to improve. Meeks mentioned shooting. The story came out: Meeks needs to work on his shooting.

"Once he said that, that was out there," Orestes Meeks said. "I told Jodie, 'This is a lesson for you. You have to be careful what you say. You say the wrong thing, that can really hurt you.' "

As a UK player, Meeks carefully answers all questions. His responses are as bland as his shooting can be breathtaking.

When asked whether his son's guarded persona for interviews should be traced to that long-ago Internet story, Orestes Meeks said, "Absolutely.

"Not only that. He's just a pretty smart kid. He understands what he says reverberates."

Kentucky accidentally stumbled upon Meeks late in the recruiting process. Then-associate coach David Hobbs went to Suwanee, Ga., to watch Derrick Jasper play a summer event for college recruiters.

Jasper reaffirmed his status as a UK prospect, but Meeks caught Hobbs' eye. (By the way, Hobbs became intrigued with a sophomore named Patrick Patterson at the same event.)

As Hobbs later told the player's father, he stayed around to watch Meeks play two more games. When Hobbs returned to Lexington, he told then-UK coach Tubby Smith. Smith noted that the word in recruiting circles had Meeks going to Alabama. But Hobbs encouraged Smith to see whether Kentucky's entrance into the recruitment could re-shuffle the deck.

It could.

"When they call, you have to say, 'Hey, wait. Let me hear what these guys are saying,' " Orestes Meeks said.

Before Smith came on an official visit to the Meeks' home, the player's father found it difficult to believe Kentucky had a strong interest.

"I was convinced they were just kicking the tires," Orestes Meeks said. "They had other kids they were looking at."

Thaddeus Young. Brandan Wright. Deon Thomopson. Willie Kemp.

Kentucky got none of those players. And when Orestes Meeks let it be known that his son would make a commitment in the fall of his senior high school season, UK put its efforts into overdrive.

On Meeks' campus visit, Smith pressed for a commitment. The Meekses huddled, and Jodie committed on the spot, which in effect canceled an upcoming recruiting visit to Florida.

After a promising freshman season for Kentucky, he saw injuries derail his sophomore year.

All the while, he worked on his shooting and followed UK Coach Billy Gillispie's orders to get in superior conditioning.

That didn't come as a surprise to his high school coach.

"Jodie's the type of kid, you don't have to yell at him," Martin said. "He's very coachable. He took it to heart (to improve)."

Meeks' performance this season is a testament to his coachability and his desire to improve. His scoring average of 25.9 points is the highest at UK since Issel's senior season of 1969-70.

As for his shooting, Meeks is on pace to break UK's record for free-throw accuracy. He's made 91.4 percent of his free throws with the record 91.2 (shared by Kyle Macy and Travis Ford).

His three-point accuracy (44.4 percent) is on pace to be UK's second-best in a season. Only Ford's 52.9 percent in 1992-93 is better.

In Orestes Meeks' mind, that settles any question about his son's shooting ability.

"I worry about global warming," Orestes Meeks said. "I worry about the economy. But Jodie shooting the ball? Nope. I never worried about that one time."