Leslie McDonald said he stopped worrying about his surgically repaired right knee last summer, a year after he tore the ACL that forced him to miss all of last basketball season.
But if you saw McDonald in North Carolina’s first few basketball games this season, you may have a different opinion. McDonald appeared neither comfortable nor confident in the knee. He wasn’t the same player he was before the injury.
Maybe it was a necessary path to travel to work out the kinks, especially psychologically, because over the last two games, the redshirt junior from Memphis has played the best ball of his career, averaging 19 points and four rebounds in 42 total minutes of action.
“Leslie is a big threat for us,” coach Roy Williams said. “Whether he’s coming off the bench or starting, it really doesn’t make a difference.”
McDonald started in UNC’s win over UAB two weeks ago, but otherwise has been instant offense off the bench. His sweet perimeter stroke has frustrated opponents and excited the Tar Heel fan base. And with each game, the range in McDonald’s game has grown.
The 6-foot-5 swingman has become much more active on offense. He isn’t necessarily taking the ball to the rack with regularity, but his movement in getting open and finding spots on the perimeter is night and day compared to the way he played in 2011.
McDonald may have felt terrific physically, but his knee wasn’t entirely in basketball shape. He needed to jab, cut and stop suddenly hundreds of times to gain a true measure of confidence. And he also had to jump and land, sometimes after receiving contact and sometimes awkwardly on his own.
And McDonald also had to learn how to catch and shoot better on the move, something that has become a priority for the Tar Heels under new assistant coach Hubert Davis. A former Tar Heel himself, Davis played more than a decade in the NBA and spent recent years as a prominent college basketball analyst on television. He picked up quite a bit in recent years seeing many different coaches run practices.
What he introduced to the Tar Heels was the art of catching the ball and shooting on the perimeter while still moving. This particular drill has helped McDonald immensely, and continues to do so.
McDonald said while some of the changes are physical, the whole process is really mental.
“Sometimes when you’re tired you want to slack off your form and you don’t want to jump as high as you normally do,” McDonald said. “But he (Davis) tells us every time that if we’re tired to still take that extra energy to jump off and get great elevation on our shots.”
The results for McDonald have been increasingly impressive. He is averaging 10.3 points per game and has made 45.7 percent of his 3-point attempts. With increased playing time, which will also come with more trust from Williams about his defense, those figures should improve.
“I love watching him shoot,” fellow Tar Heel Reggie Bullock said of McDonald. “He’s a great shooter. He has great form and all, but you can see it in him, every time he shoots the ball he knows it’s going in.”
McDonald now must find consistency in his output. He’s scored five or fewer points in five contests — though just once in the last three games — and has totaled 14 or more in four others. McDonald has seven two-point field goals in the last four games and even added eight assists in UNC’s last two contests, indicating an increased well-roundedness in McDonald’s game.
“I don’t just want to be known as a shooter,” McDonald said. “I think I can do a lot to help this team win games. … I feel like with each game more of what I can do sort of comes out.”
McDonald will get another chance to move his game forward Saturday when the 7-2 Tar Heels host East Carolina. And with just four more games until a new 18-game ACC schedule begins, and two of the contests versus Texas and UNLV, his ascent is a crucial part of UNC’s plans.