UNC's Leslie McDonald a force at NC Pro-Am

acarter@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2012 

— Leslie McDonald could tell about a month ago, he said. He began moving with more confidence, changing directions and running like he once did, before he suffered a torn ACL about a year ago.

He endured that injury here in the Greater N.C. Pro-Am, a summer basketball league whose creators have dubbed the “Rucker of the South,” and one that features a variety of local college and professional standouts, past and present.

McDonald at the time of his injury had been making believers out of those who hoped he could emerge as a leading player for North Carolina. And now, almost one year later, he’s doing the same thing all over again.

“It feels great, just being able to run with other athletes,” said McDonald, who has learned not to take such things for granted. “Last year, I was sitting on the bench the whole time, watching other people play. And now they get to watch me play. So it feels good.”

It’s only summer league, of course. Defense is optional at times, play at times sloppy. The public address announcer at N.C. Central’s McLendon-McDougald Gym keeps a running commentary – most of it humorous – and a deejay keeps tunes thumping and bumping, almost in rhythm with the game.

Even so, McDonald scored 21 points for his team, Sheraton Imperial, on Tuesday night, and he helped lead it to a 62-59 victory against The Athletes Foot, which featured, among others former N.C. State guard Alex Johnson. McDonald is known as a jump shooter but his points on Tuesday came mostly off aggression.

He drove often drove to the basket, past defenders who couldn’t keep up, showing no signs of a troubled knee.

“Leslie’s playing like his knee didn’t even get hurt last year in this tournament,” said P.J. Hairston, McDonald’s teammate in the summer league and on the Tar Heels. “And he’s playing with no remorse. And that’s how he’s got to play all the time.”

Hairston played with an attitude, too, on Tuesday – or as much as one could be mustered for a summer exhibition that came with a soundtrack. At times Hairston, who entered college with a reputation as a dangerous perimeter shooter, struggled with his shot during his freshman season.

He went through long shooting droughts then, but displayed no signs of weakness – or hesitation – from the perimeter on Tuesday night. Much to the delight of team captain Rasheed Wallace, Hairston led Sheraton Imperial with 28 points, and he made five 3-pointers.

“I sort of got into a rhythm,” Hairston said. “I heard some Duke fans in my ear. Kind of pumped me up. So every time I made a shot, I kind of looked at them. They were kind of quiet. And you know every time I missed a shot, they were kind of cheering. So it was fun. But at the same time, competitive.”

Those Duke fans at one point told Hairston that he couldn’t shoot, perhaps reminding him of some of his most difficult days during his freshman season. Hairston responded by making three more 3s after that, quieting the naysayers.

Wallace, the former UNC standout and the longtime NBA player, was loud, too. He yelled orders at his teammates and, in the midst of a close game in the fourth quarter, he pulled Hairston and McDonald together. Wallace told both to be aggressive.

“He’s been on our level and beyond,” said McDonald, a fourth-year junior with two years of eligibility remaining. “So I’m going to listen to him. He has valuable information for you. So if he tells you to do this, you do it.”

Besides, McDonald had been working on his aggressiveness about a year ago this time, before his injury. People who watched him then had been impressed with how he was playing, and with what might await him.

Even Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said he had been receiving positive reports about McDonald’s progress. And so now McDonald is back, attempting to continue on as though he’d never been interrupted.

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