CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Late in the first half of Friday’s exhibition victory against Shaw, North Carolina senior Dexter Strickland tipped the ball away on defense, raced down the court to grab it, and finished the play with a layup.
He looked like the Strickland of old -- speedy, defensive-minded, fearless.
But perhaps more importantly, the combo guard said he felt like the player of old, too.
“You can ask anybody, ‘If you’ve had a torn ACL, how does it feel to come back?” Strickland said Tuesday. “And it’s not the fact that it hurts, it’s that you still have to trust it. So it’s not that it hurts when I do this or it hurts when I do that, it’s saying to myself, ‘I can do this, I can run fast and jump high and it won’t hurt me.’
“That play was maybe the fastest I’ve run since my surgery, but afterward, my knee felt good. I felt great. Doing things like that … is building more trust and confidence in my knee. I feel like I can do almost anything now.”
After watching the knee-braceless Strickland start at shooting guard in the exhibition and finish with six points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 21 minutes, it’s hard to believe that only eight months ago, he could do almost nothing basketball-wise.
He was UNC’s starting shooting guard, back-up point guard and top perimeter defender when he tore his right ACL at Virginia Tech on Jan. 19. The next month, he had surgery, and was left to watch in street clothes from the bench as his team advanced and ultimately lost in the NCAA Elite Eight.
“It was hard, not being out there,’’ said Strickland, the only scholarship senior on this year's team. “But at the same time … I was determined to come back and be an even better player.”
When he couldn’t run, he worked on his shooting. As he strengthened his knee, he pondered how to strengthen his game.
For so long, the 6-foot-3, 185-pounder has been the Tar Heels’ ‘Dex Factor,’ the guy important for his defense and hustle and complementary role. But this season, he’s determined to show more. In particular: that he can also shoot the ball better from the outside than he’s previously displayed, and that he does have what it takes to compete at the pro level after this season.
“Expect a lot,’’ Strickland said. “I’ve been working like crazy. I haven’t missed any days of extra shooting; the only day I don’t work out is Sunday, I try to give one day to the Lord. … I’m just taking things extra serious. I don’t go out anymore to the clubs, I don’t party and stuff like that. Everything is like a business to me now.
“I think I posted a picture to Instagram and it said ‘Strick’ly Business.’ I figure this year determines how my future is going to be.”
Although he won’t start at point guard -- coach Roy Williams has given the nod to freshman Marcus Paige -- Strickland still expects to get a lot of minutes as back-up ballhandler, as well as start at shooting guard.
With so many veteran wings on the team -- Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald, P.J. Hairston -- there will be plenty of competition for outside shots. But Strickland's first goal is to help the Tar Heels surprise some people after losing four starters to the NBA draft. And from defending to ballhandling to scoring, he thinks he can help his team do that in a myriad of ways.
Especially now that he’s re-gaining confidence in his knee.
“I’m ready,’’ said Strickland, who said Friday he's at about 98 or 99 percent. “It’s been a long wait since I got hurt, and I’m just ready to get on the court, show that we’re ready to have a great season.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.