UNC's Strickland, McDonald will play key basketball role after knee injuries

CorrespondentOctober 30, 2012 

— At first blush, North Carolina coach Roy Williams’ expectations for Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald are relatively straightforward.

“They need to be able to play, and they need to be able to be successful,” Williams said during the Tar Heels’ media day recently.

While Strickland and McDonald will play this season, both have to overcome ACL injuries to their right knees to be successful.

McDonald, a junior guard, is further along in the recovery process by virtue of having torn his ACL in July, 2011.

He toyed with the idea of trying to return last February or March, when injuries decimated the rotation. He quickly decided it would be a bad idea to rush his rehabilitation, but the upshot of being 16 months removed from his injury is that McDonald’s health isn’t a pronounced concern.

Instead, he and the coaches are more curious about how he will cope with the rust associated with missing an entire season. McDonald averaged seven points in 2010-11 and was second on the team with 51 3-pointers, but Williams isn’t assuming he’ll return as the exact same player.

“Hopefully he has even more hunger and he’s really got to do some things because sitting out a whole year usually hurts you,” he said. “We could have brought him back last year the last three or four weeks, but it would have been silly to do that sort of thing. But any time you’re coming off an ACL injury where you sat out a whole year, or like Dexter where you’re just getting ready to play, I think you have to be concerned about that.

“Leslie can really shoot it. Now what we have to do is make it more of a consistent thing as opposed to a streak shooter. And what I’m going to tell him is he’s got to give me another reason to keep him in the game. Dexter gives you several reasons to keep him in the game – it’s either his penetration or his defense or something. So Leslie can’t be known just as a shooter.”

Summer warm-ups

McDonald said playing in a league this summer should pay dividends. It was in those games he said he concentrated on his shooting mechanics and trusting his knee so he wouldn’t have to think about such things once the season starts. Now that North Carolina’s season opener against Gardner-Webb is less than a month away, McDonald said he’s ready to go.

And if Williams needs him to show something other than shooting, McDonald thinks the time he spent observing Williams at work last season will help him diversify his contributions.

“I actually spoke to my dad and said, ‘OK, this is what coach really wants me to do, and this is how they really (want) us to play,’” McDonald said. “It was hard at first because we’re freshmen, naïve, not really seeing it from the perspective of a coach. Now that I’ve seen it from the perspective of a coach and a fan, I know just want they want.”

Different point of view

After Strickland tore his right ACL in a Jan. 19 game at Virginia Tech, he and McDonald sat beside each other on the bench most games. They consider themselves brothers, and they spent time during games talking about whatever it was that was getting Williams worked up.

The bigger issue for Strickland is he’s not as far along in the rehabilitation process. While doctors cleared him on Aug. 27 to resume basketball activities, Strickland said he’s “96 percent” recovered.

That’s one reason Williams said he expects freshman Marcus Paige to be the starting point guard.

“Part of it is that Dexter’s still somewhat limited in what we’re going to do with him in practice,” said Williams, explaining his rationale. “And Dexter’s never been a point guard. That has something to do with it, too. But Marcus Paige has a chance to be really good.”

Strickland has spent some of his career spelling point guards – Larry Drew for parts of Strickland’s freshman year; Kendall Marshall for his sophomore and junior seasons – but he said he’s more naturally comfortable as a shooting guard.

“All my life – AAU, high school – I played the two guard; I was a scorer,” said Strickland, who averaged 7.5 points last season and was second on the team in assists at the time of his injury.

“Coming here … I had to get a point guard’s mentality on not scoring first but getting our team involved first. It was a big challenge for me.”

If Strickland doesn’t have to worry about being a point guard, his biggest challenge figures to be learning to trust his knee. It’s still a work in progress.

“I remember the first time I tried to dunk off of it,” Strickland said. “My left leg is my jumping leg. I injured my right one, so jumping off two was tough for me at first. I was hesitant, but you’ve just got to do it. You just can’t worry about it. That’s when you get hurt.”

Even with a number of strong options on the perimeter – in addition to McDonald, North Carolina has Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston on the wing – it’ll be important for Strickland to work through any misgivings he has with his knee.

Because for the Tar Heels to thrive, Williams needs Strickland and McDonald not only to play but also be successful.

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