From YouTube sensation to target of criticism, UNC’s Seventh Woods finally healthy and proving naysayers wrong

R.L. Bynum, Triangle Sports Network
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R.L. Bynum, Correspondent

@RL_Bynum

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Flashy dunks from his high school and AAU days filled YouTube mixtapes and created lofty expectations for Seventh Woods.

When there is a video such as “Seventh Woods is THE BEST 14 Year Old In The Country! CRAZY Athlete,” and it’s been viewed more than 15 million times, fans expect a legend to show up in Chapel Hill.

The lofty standards those sorts of videos sowed more than five years ago would have been impossible to meet, even if he was injury-free.

But there were injuries that were hard to overcome.

Along with that, there were harsh critiques from fans and his coach that made it difficult for him to feel good about his game.

Coach Roy Williams talked about calling him Fifth or Sixth as a freshman because he was still waiting for the “real Seventh” to show up at North Carolina.

The same social media platforms that built him up knocked him down, leading Woods to eventually mute his name from his Twitter feed.

He had the control to block out the negative social-media feedback, but the injuries were another story.

After breaking a wrist in his junior high school season, he dealt with a knee injury and a sprained ankle before his freshman season at UNC.

Those injuries were tough to shake.

He then missed significant time last season (playing in only 20 games after playing in all 40 as a freshman) with a stress fracture in his left foot.

“He was never healthy,” Williams said of Woods.

“He made poor decisions, and that’s one thing that wasn’t related to his health problem. But, maybe if he were healthy he would get past them.”

All those negative vibes have given way to a positive wave for the injury-free Woods, who is playing well and proving his detractors were wrong about him. When was the last time he was this healthy?

“Maybe my sophomore year in high school, to be honest with you,” the 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior said, looking down at the floor in almost disbelief.

He still has been held out of practice a little bit recently with what he calls a minor Achilles issue.

He’s earned a healthy amount of praise during the No. 7 Tar Heels’ 5–0 start, and will need to continue that as they move from convincing home wins over Tennessee Tech (108–58 on Friday) and Saint Francis (101-76 on Monday) to more challenging matchups at the Las Vegas Invitational.

After facing Texas (4-0) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (FS1), UNC meets either No. 11 Michigan State (3-1 with a loss to No. 2 Kansas) or No. 17 UCLA (3-0) on Friday at either 4 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. (WRAZ).

“Just going out there with a free mind, to be honest with you,” said Woods, explaining his improved play.

“Just realizing that I’m going to make mistakes. I just have to move on quickly from them and just go out there and play basketball and try to keep my teammates involved.”

Spoken like a player who has fully embraced the mentality needed for a point guard.

On Friday, he hit his first 3-pointer in two seasons, but he knows that he’s not expected to be a scorer and he rarely hunts for a shot.

His behind-the-back assist against Tennessee Tech notwithstanding, Woods has been impressive not because of highlight-reel material.

It’s because he’s playing with confidence: Solid on the defensive end while making the right pass and limiting mistakes on the offensive end.

“He’s playing well, taking care of the ball very well, making the correct play and not trying to do too much,” said freshman Coby White, who is starting ahead of Woods at point guard.

“Just going out there and playing his game. He knows his game to the fullest and he’s playing it.”

Woods isn’t going to shy away from a spectacular dunk if given the chance, but he’s not looking out for flashy plays.

Sometimes, in the case of that behind-the-back pass that produced a Cameron Johnson 3-pointer, it just happens.

Video (ESPN.com) – Seventh Woods behind-the-back-pass

“Honestly, I didn’t know I did it until after I did it, so I guess it was natural. I didn’t realize what I was doing at first,” Woods said.

The difference between his physical abilities in his first two seasons and now is obvious in the way he moves around the court.

“I think I wasn’t as fast as I could be,” Woods said.

“I wasn’t more explosive, and also being injured kind of took away from my confidence a little bit. So, I think that’s the biggest contributor to my success right now.”

You no longer hear Williams call him anything but Seventh, and with good reason: Woods is doing exactly what the Hall of Fame coach demands of his point guard.

“I’ve been preaching for three years: Stay in front of the ball and don’t turn the sucker over and you get to play more,” said Williams, acknowledging that he’s seen better decision-making from Woods.

Woods dished out a career-high eight assists with no turnovers against Tennessee Tech, then seven assists against Saint Francis, and has 27 assists against six turnovers for the season.

He and White both have been productive, but with contrasting strengths.

White pushes the ball up the court faster in transition — and that’s an understatement.

Both can be outstanding in stretches on defense.

Woods swiped a career-high four steals against Saint Francis but, as Williams described, “got beat twice on straight-line drives in the second half” in that game.

Woods is doing a more efficient job running the half-court offense and the secondary break and is playing more under control than White.

Woods, who also doesn’t go to the rim nearly as much as White, has tossed up perfect lob passes for several dunks and selected the ideal post-entry passes, whether it’s a pinpoint chest pass or a slick bounce pass.

After Saint Francis cut its deficit to six in the second half, Williams credited freshman Nassir Little and Woods for sparking a key stretch.

“Seventh was really good during a stretch there,” Williams said.

“He was not very good at all in the first half. In the second half during that stretch, I thought he was really good.”

That included a sequence in which Woods had assists on three consecutive possessions.

On an assist to center Sterling Manley earlier in the game, he possessed the ball for only a split-second before making the touch pass.

“The game has definitely slowed down for me,” Woods said.

“I realize how good my bigs are, so if I can get the ball inside to them, nine times out of 10, they’re going to score the ball, so it’s an easy assist for me. I realized that early on.”

Woods already has more assists (27) than he had last season (20) and is averaging 13.8 assists per 40 minutes.

Senior Luke Maye, who has been on the receiving end of some of those assists, has seen a transformation in Woods.

“His confidence is great,” Maye said.

“He’s really got a lot of confidence from Coach praising him and trying to get him on the right track and back to the Seventh that he knows he can be. And that’s really exciting to see him at a high level.”

Woods admits that it feels “weird” to be a veteran and be sought by the younger players for guidance.

In the case of White, this season is far from his first exposure to Woods. He’s not surprised at the performance of his back-up.

“Seventh has been doing that for a long, long time,” White said.

“I grew up watching him do that. I see it every day in practice and workouts, pickups, all of that, so it’s not shocking. Everybody knows how athletic Seventh Woods is.”

There are a lot of factors that explain Woods’ transformation from a guy who made some fans cringe when he was at the controls of the offense last season to a dependable and efficient playmaker this season.

He’s as self-aware now as he was in his first two seasons.

“I know freshman and sophomore years, Coach didn’t really trust me as much,” Woods said, suggesting that a measure of his progress is the trust that he has built with the coaching staff.

“Guard the ball, don’t turn it over, you get more minutes and get more praise from the coaches and that’s always a good thing.”

Getting minutes, he is.

His average of 15.6 minutes per game is more than double what he got in his first two seasons (7.7 as a freshman and 7.0 as a sophomore).

Having one of the best point guards in program history, Kendall Marshall, on campus has also been an invaluable resource for all the point guards, including Woods.

“He’s definitely helped me a lot, especially last year when I was hurt,” Woods said.

“I think the experience is the best help I’ve had. I have been through it two years so far, so the third year is trying to make it work.”

Facing versatile freshman Leaky Black in practice probably makes it seem easier to deal with any defender in a game.

“Leaky is probably one of the best defenders I ever went up against,” Woods said.

“Going against him in practice is very tough. He’s so long that he can get his hands on pretty much anything.”

He may not quite be in Seventh heaven yet.

But, to say the least, he’s a lot closer than he was during his first two seasons at Carolina.

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