The North Carolina Tar Heels lost two of their star perimeter players Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland to season ending injuries last year. McDonald was lost before the season ever began tearing his ACL in the NC-Pro Am, Strickland injured himself 16 games into the season. Both are returning this season and hope to help Carolina get over the loss of four NBA first round draft picks.
McDonald is further along in his recovery and has been at 100% for quite some time, even practicing with the Heels towards the end of last season. Strickland on the other hand still isn’t quite ready to do everything on the basketball court. Head coach Roy Williams recently classified Strickland at about 85-90%.
After being held out of the scrimmage at Late Night with Roy, Strickland’s early season role is in question. Roy named freshman Marcus Paige the likely starter at point guard and given the combination of the depth on the perimeter and the uncertainty of Strickland’s recovery, he cannot be counted on, at least early in the season.
McDonald on the other hand is fighting a different battle, rust. He has not seen the court in a real game in over a year. Before his injury, Roy spoke very highly of McDonald’s game, stating that nobody that saw him play prior to the 2011 season would have ranked him outside of the top six players on the roster. He stated that McDonald would battle Strickland for the starting shooting guard spot during training camp. But that battle never began due to his injury and Strickland held onto his spot.
The competition gets even steeper this season with Reggie Bullock, PJ Hairston and freshman JP Tokoto also on board and fighting for minutes on the perimeter. The key to this teams success will be improved shooting as a team. Over the last few seasons the Heels have relied upon their All-American big men and fast break offense. While the break will still be a big part of what they do in Chapel Hill, they must improve their shooting.
Will McDonald be able to pick up where he left off while expanding his game from and utilizing his athleticism more than he ever has at Carolina? That’s a lot to ask of someone who hasn’t stepped on the hardwood in over a year. Remember, it took Michael Jordan a full summer of hard work to get his game back after returning from a fling with baseball.
Strickland has never been a scorer and certainly isn’t a shooter. He relies on his defensive prowess, versatility as a combo guard and leadership. The real question is will he be able to regain his lateral movement needed in order to play the type of defense we are used to seeing from him. Can he lead the break while providing backup minutes at the point?
I expect Strickland to be handled with care as the season begins. Roy Williams has to be cautious against losing one of his capable PGs and destroying his depth at the position again this season. I don’t expect to see Strickland in the starting lineup, though I expect a big role for him off the bench.
It’s harder to call when it comes to McDonald, I see it as a two way battle between Hairston and McDonald for the starting two guard spot with Bullock sliding to small forward. Whomever proves they can help the team the most as a scorer is likely to grab that spot. Hairston looked confident and his stroke looked good at Late Night while McDonald showed some of that rust. Both are terrific players and it will be interesting to see who rises above the other.
Most likely it will take a month or so into the season before we truly see how much these players can contribute. Strickland isn’t likely to be at 100% before the season starts and it’s almost as unlikely that McDonald can shake off a years worth of rust faster than Jordan did.