CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Last week, North Carolina senior Dexter Strickland was cleared to run. Soon, he thinks his doctor will allow him to jump and work on lateral movement.
By late August or early September, trainers are hoping he’ll be ready to return to the court and play basketball again.
And by the start of the season?
“I expect to play the point guard way more than I did last year,” he said Thursday, grinning as he met with the media.
Indeed, with last season’s Cousy Award winner, Kendall Marshall, preparing for the NBA draft and star prep ballhandler Marcus Paige not due to arrive on campus until later this month the onus is on Strickland, a combo guard, to take on more of a load at point guard next season.
But he has to get healthy first.
Last season, the New Jersey native was starting at shooting guard, backing up Marshall at point guard, and serving as the team’s top perimeter defender when his knee buckled on a drive to the basket January 19 at Virginia Tech. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the play, forcing reconstructive surgery several weeks later and sidelining him for the season.
“It was horrible,’’ Strickland said. “I really don’t like to think about it, talk about it. It was horrible. As soon as I Euro-stepped, I just felt it shift; the pain was -- I can’t really explain it, it hurt me real bad.”
What hurt worse, though, was having to watch his team play from the sideline. First during the postseason, when the Tar Heels lost in the NCAA Regional finals with Marshall also benched by injury.
“The most difficult thing is just being injured -- watching guys playing pick-up and not being able to play with them, not being able to work on my game and get better, as far as jump shooting and different dribbling drills and stuff like that,’’ Strickland said. “That’s been the most frustrating: not being able to be in the gym as I used to be.”
Day by day, though, he’s getting closer to coming back, sweating in the weight room and rehabbing in the pool. He’s also been spending plenty of time watching film of point guards, “guys who are very good at what they do” like Ty Lawson, Chris Paul and Tony Parker.
“I still see myself as a combo guard,’’ said Strickland, who didn’t start playing point guard until his freshman year at UNC. “I think I’ll always be a slashing guard, so I think there’s more room to grow, and there’s never a time when I stop learning or stop developing my game as a 2-guard or a point guard. I need to focus on whatever it takes to help my team win.”
Which means getting healthy, ASAP. After all, the only other point guard on the roster besides Paige next season is sophomore Luke Davis, who sat out 2011-12 after transferring from Gardner-Webb.
That’s one of the reasons Strickland thinks the Tar Heels will be underestimated.
“I feel like we’re going to an underdog a little bit, being that we lost John [Henson], Harrison [Barnes], Kendall, Z [Tyler Zeller], who were really key to our success,’’ he said. “I think we have something to prove. I think everybody’s thinking we won’t be as talented, we won’t be able to accomplish the same goals that we accomplished last season. And I think that gives everybody more motivation to be better.”
And to heal?
Strickland says he knows he won’t be 100 percent when he is cleared to return to the floor in a couple of months, but he hopes his speed and instincts come back quickly. He has been told he is recovering fast and is “on track."
UNC opens practice Oct. 12.
“I’ve come a long way,’’ he said. “I still have a lot to do with the rehab, of course, but so far it’s been good.”
BRIEFLY: Shooting guard P.J. Hairston sprained his right shoulder in a pick-up game about three weeks ago, but is expected to start playing again this weekend.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.