Meet Adrian Atkinson, The Man Behind "Carolina Dunk of the Day" (And UNC Basketball's Best Analytics Content)

isaacschade

Jeff Lebo is responsible for a great deal of Carolina basketball history:

  • 1,567 career points (28 all-time at UNC)
  • 327 career rebounds
  • 580 career assists (10 all-time at UNC)
  • 159 career steals (19 all-time at UNC)
  • 211 career three-pointers (in the first three years of the three-point shot’s existence)
  • 42.8 career three-point percentage (second all-time at UNC)
  • 83.9 career free throw percentage (fifth all-time at UNC)
  • 2.21 career assist-to-turnover ratio
  • 116 career wins
  • 2 Sweet Sixteens
  • 2 Elite Eights
  • 2 ACC Regular Season Championships
  • 1 ACC Tournament Championship
  • 1 Adrian Atkinson

Wait. What’s that last item on the list? Adrian Atkinson? Who is Adrian Atkinson and what on earth does he have to do with Jeff Lebo?

Let me tell you the story:

Carlisle, Pennsylvania is a township about 30 minutes southwest of the state capital, Harrisburg. Longtime Carolina fans also know that Carlisle is Jeff Lebo’s hometown. 200 miles west, in the small town of Freeport (a northeast suburb of Pittsburgh), nine-year-old Adrian Atkinson was keeping tabs on Lebo as he went off to play basketball in Chapel Hill in 1985.

“[Lebo] was a high school All-American and a top-5 or top-10 recruit. We’d read in our local paper about this hot-shot from Carlisle, who had committed to Carolina. So I followed him and he got there for the [1985-]86 season. I started following Carolina, I guess I was nine at that point, like fourth grade. So that’s how I started watching Carolina and fell in love with the program. The way Coach Smith taught the game; even when I was a kid I appreciated the way they moved the ball, the way they shared the ball. It was a fun style of basketball to watch. And I’ve been a fan ever since. It’s been 30-plus years now.”

While he never blossomed into the high-level basketball prospect that Jeff Lebo did, Atkinson played point guard in high school. In fact, he refers to himself as a “poor man’s Jeff Lebo” who still goes out to play pick-up when he can. Of course, with all the shutdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the best Atkinson can do currently is shoot hoops in his driveway.

Atkinson eventually enrolled at the University of Richmond, where he had the opportunity to see the Antawn Jamison-era Tar Heels come to town and beat up on the Spiders. From there he went on to graduate school at NC State in 1999, where he studied economics. The pull of the Research Triangle was too great, so Atkinson never left and still resides in Raleigh to this day. He spends his days working as a Data Scientist at a Triangle tech company (which is a kind way of saying that he’s smarter than the rest of us) but pours his free time into statistical and analytical analysis of Carolina basketball games (and providing you with a treasure trove of the best dunks in Carolina history). 

As an aside, this is the appropriate moment to thank Adrian’s wife for allowing him space and free time to be able to work on his Carolina basketball obsession.

“I’ve always been a numbers guy. Growing up, I was a big Bill James fan. I played Strat-O-Matic basketball and baseball. Kept all my own stats. That was kind of my foray into stats and analytics, from an early age.”

Starting in the 2003-04 season, Atkinson began posting raw plus/minus data on the Inside Carolina message boards. An example was noticing that Carolina was plus-20 when Jackie Manuel was on the floor, but minus-14 with Melvin Scott in the game. By the end of the year, Manuel had been inserted to the line-up, and while Atkinson doesn’t want to second-guess Coach Williams, he notes that the plus/minus data supported this move from the beginning of the season.

After these beginnings of sharing his early data on the message boards, Atkinson started writing and editing a preseason Carolina magazine called Tar Heel Tip-Off from 2007-2012. He says of the premise for the magazine, “The guys who started it were big Moneyball guys who wanted to do analytical stuff for thinking fans. It was pretty nitty-gritty. A lot of my charting data went in there.”

Atkinson has a blog called “The Secondary Break” which contains long-form articles. He says he hasn’t kept up with the blog in recent years, but it is full of top-notch content, including game breakdowns, a stats glossary, and other statistical and analytical analysis. 

He is also a freelance writer for Inside Carolina in which he writes “shorter and tighter articles” that include analytical content, such as “x’s and o’s” and charting-based content, Atkinson’s wheelhouse.

Today, Atkinson is the man behind the best analytics available for North Carolina basketball. Through his Carolina Charting Project, he has charted literally every game of the Roy Williams era. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 719 games over the course of 17 seasons Atkinson has charted; not to mention the 100 or so games he’s completed from prior to 2003-04 (so if you have old game footage and would be willing to share, he would love to connect with you - @freeportkid).

What is the Carolina Charting Project and what does it mean to “chart” a game?

“I re-watch each game and I chart everything that happens on both ends of the court; each possession. Then I enter that all into a spreadsheet or a database. It’s defensive charting, defensive counting, giving blame or credit to the appropriate players. And then type of offensive phase. Did they score in secondary or primary break or freelance passing game? Where the shot was taken. The type of shot. How well contested it was. All these things. Numbers of passes. Ball reversals. All kinds of crazy stuff. It’s in this big database. It’s a wild hobby I guess; a weird way to enjoy the game or watch the game. I’m pretty obsessive about it. There are lots of ways to enjoy basketball. Mine is on the far spectrum of craziness.”

How long does it take to break down a game?

“The game is two hours, so it takes about two hours to re-watch and chart one.” Atkinson is able to fast-forward through timeouts, halftime, and free throws, although that extra time is added back in due to fast-forwarding and rewinding to make sure he catches all the action in a particular possession. After the completion of a game, it takes another hour or two to enter the data and upload it to the database.

For the most up-to-date and real-time analytical action you will find, Atkinson’s personal Twitter feed (@freeportkid) is a veritable encyclopedia of UNC Basketball insight. In season, his tweets brim with next-level statistical observations. Out of season, Atkinson’s feed relays past games he is in the midst of breaking down, takeaways from those games, and musings from the stats or sets he is breaking down.

Now, wait, pause.

For some of you reading this article, you’re barely hanging with me. To you, stats and analysis and game breakdown are like watching paint dry or the grass grow. You’re just here for the dunks.

Never fear, Adrian Atkinson has you covered there, too.

Sure, Adrian Atkinson has catalogued and charted every game of the Roy Williams era at UNC. But he also enjoys a good dunk, just as much as the next guy. While an analytics junkie, Atkinson is not afraid to allow us to experience the joy and exhilaration of watching the most exciting play in basketball: the slam dunk.

On July 10, 2020, with the MLB season and the NBA restart still two weeks away, and the sports world in desperate need of something to fill the gap, Adrian Atkinson tweeted the following:

Check it out “if it’s your thing”?
It’s Carolina basketball.
It’s dunks by Carolina basketball players.
“Of course it’s ‘my thing',” said every Carolina basketball fan ever.

From the outset, Carolina Dunk of the Day (@UNC_Dunks) turned into Carolina Dunks of the Day. On the first day of existence, Atkinson’s new Twitter account featured not one, but seven dunks: one each from Garrison Brooks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Harrison Barnes, J.P. Tokoto, Vince Carter, and Sean May.

Where did the idea for Carolina Dunk of the Day come from?

“A couple of summers ago, I created a YouTube channel. Now it’s just a place to store all my clips and video. I went through a bunch of games and separated it all, trying to visually demonstrate all the actions and options in Carolina’s offense. I had a bunch of clips of everything, but hundreds of dunks. It occurred to me that the dunk is common ground. There are a lot of ways to enjoy basketball. You can be fanatical about it. You can be a casual fan who loves the Tar Heels but doesn’t get into all the “x’s and o’s” and the strategy, but still loves watching the game. The dunk is one of the plays that unifies all Carolina fans, all basketball fans. Everyone appreciates a good dunk; that expression of athleticism. I figured, let’s start a channel where we put up a bunch of Carolina dunks and see how that goes.”

“It’s kind of ironic, I’m one of those guys where I kind of get mad because SportsCenter just shows threes and dunks. They don’t really show a guy’s all-around game or what kind of player he is. I’ve been railing against that for decades, but now, ironically, I’m doing the same thing – just showing dunks.”

“I do try to explain if Carolina creates a dunk out of [a certain play], I try to have that in the write-up. I try to explain a little more “x’s and o’s”. This context and helpful understanding surrounding the dunks are a great benefit to fans as they interact with Atkinson’s posts and learning more about the events surrounding the dunks. The beauty is not just in the act of the dunk itself, you see, but in everything it took for that dunk to happen.

How are the daily dunks chosen?

Because of the wealth of footage at his disposal, Atkinson likes to hop around in his daily dunk selections. There is no specific rhyme or reason to the picks other than trying to celebrate different players and different eras of Carolina basketball. You’re just as likely to tune in and see James Worthy as you are Vince Carter or Tyler Hansbrough or Brice Johnson or a surprise like Shammond Williams or Kenny Smith.

Recently, the Carolina Dunk of the Day has featured a pair of different tournaments. The first was “Favorite Vince Carter Carolina Dunk”. Atkinson selected 18 of Vince Carter’s best dunks and, after two play-in games, held a 16-dunk bracket. The eventual champion was a baseline-out-of-bounds lob from Shammond Williams to Carter for a dunk over Duke’s Taymon Domzalski (plus the and-one) on February 5, 1998. 

Perhaps the reason many selected it for their “favorite” dunk (note that the word is not “best”) is because the result was a resounding 97-73 victory for then-number two UNC over then-number one Duke. It seems as though there was some intrinsic sentimentality tied into this dunk (which you can see below, along with the dunk that finished in second place).

The second tournament is currently underway. Atkinson has put together a full 64-dunk bracket of the greatest Carolina dunks of all-time. The tournament actually has 74 total dunks and followers can vote on 10 play-in match-ups leading to the actual main bracket.

As for Atkinson’s favorite Carolina dunk of all-time? “It’s probably the Danny Green dunk [over Greg Paulus on March 8, 2008, in Cameron Indoor Stadium] if I had to pick one.”

What about Atkinson’s favorite dunk of all time? As a Pittsburgh native, there is really only one option (and in fact, was the t-shirt he was wearing during our interview): Jerome Lane’s backboard-shattering dunk for Pittsburgh against Providence on January 25, 1988, which prompted Bill Raftery’s classic line, “Sent it in, Jerome!” A former coach of Atkinson’s actually gave him a shard of the glass from the shattered backboard.

This is yet another dunk tied to a sentimental moment. This time, a memory for Atkinson, dating back to his childhood (around the same time that Lebo was leaving Pennsylvania for North Carolina).

What is it about dunks that make us so interested in them?

Atkinson believes that, at the core, it’s because most of us have always fantasized about dunking, but have never been able to. We all wish we could dunk on a ten-foot goal, but since we can’t, we appreciate the athleticism of those who can. We’ve all tried, on our Nerf goals, to replicate the gravity-defying dunks we’ve seen from basketball legends, but that's the best we can do.

Perhaps the mystique of the dunk is that it is a unifying agent. It’s an act that brings humans together to celebrate an achievement that not everyone is capable. We all wish we had a massive vertical leap, but since we don’t, we’ll delight in and marvel at those who do.

Thank you, Adrian Atkinson, for this great reminder about the ways in which sports can bring us together and remind us of special moments in our lives.

And Jeff Lebo, if you’re out there somewhere, thank you for giving us Adrian Atkinson.

You can connect with Adrian on Twitter (@freeportkid | @unc_dunks) or watch his library of clips on YouTube.

You can follow us for future coverage by clicking “Follow” on the top right hand corner of the page.

Send Isaac Schade an email to talk more about this article.

Follow us on Twitter: @SI_Heels | @isaacschade

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Quierra Luck
Quierra Luck

Editor

Incredible interview!


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