CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As he helped injured shooting guard Dexter Strickland off the court Thursday night, it didn’t take long for North Carolina freshman Stilman White to realize the potential ramifications.
One of the reasons he was signed last spring was for insurance, to give the Tar Heels an extra ballhandler in case sophomore starter Kendall Marshall, or backup Strickland, got hurt.
Now that Strickland is out for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee, it’s time to see how that insurance will pay off.
“I have confidence in myself; I know I can get the job done,’’ White said Tuesday. “It’s not like they’re asking too much of me, to play most of the game. I just need to give Kendall some relief, and hopefully I can do that and do a good job.”
Strickland, the starting shooting guard, was playing only about three minutes a half at point guard – but they were important minutes, enough to re-energize Marshall, who is already averaging more than 31 minutes per game. (And enough to give the team confidence that it had an experienced backup point guard should Marshall get hurt or into foul trouble.)
Marshall can (and probably will) play more, and coach Roy Williams said the team may try running the offense in stretches without a natural ballhandler on the floor.
But White, Williams said, “is going to be given the chance to get into the game, and we’ll see. Nobody’s got a magic wand; we’ll see what happens.”
A 6-foot, 160-pounder from Wilmington, N.C., White averaged 20.5 points and 3.0 assists as a senior at Hoggard High, where he even occasionally jumped center. A Mormon, he originally planned to begin a two-year mission this season before eventually playing basketball at Utah, BYU or UNC Wilmington.
That is, until UNC, in need of another point guard after Larry Drew II transferred near mid-season last year, came calling. (He’ll go on his mission next season, and return to UNC in 2014.)
“I never really even thought I’d end up somewhere like here, but it was definitely an exciting moment in my life to have the option to come here,’’ said White, ranked a two-star recruit by Scout.com.
And since coming here, he’s worked. Although he’s played in only 15 games, averaging 4.3 minutes mostly when the outcome is already sealed, White has spent plenty of time guarding Marshall in practice. He said that's helped him learn, improve and prepare, just in case.
“Just going against a quality point guard every day like Kendall, who I think is the best in the country, has definitely got me ready,’’ he said. “Because I know every day in practice that I go up against the best, so anyone I go out and play against is probably not as good as Kendall. So that gives me a lot of confidence that if I can do stuff against him, I can do it against other people.”
It will be a challenge, though, even in short spurts.
Although “he’s really been doing a nice job,” in practice, Williams said, being a freshman point guard at UNC “is just overwhelming sometimes.”
During the 2004-05 national championship season, for example, rookie ballhandler Quentin Thomas was so inconsistent that shooting guard Melvin Scott ended up trying to spell starter Raymond Felton for stretches. In the end, Felton ended up playing more minutes – even when it meant the Tar Heels had to play zone to protect him from picking up too many fouls.
“Quentin Thomas’ freshman year, he really couldn’t handle it,’’ Williams said. “But Kendall Marshall, his freshman year [last season], was off the charts. And my guess is that Stilman will be somewhere in there.”
The question is: where?
Since learning that Strickland would be sidelined for the rest of the season, White said he’s gotten plenty of advice.
UNC assistant coach Jerod Haase has reminded him that this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and to do his best to take advantage. Marshall has stressed that the entire team has faith in him, and to play with confidence.
White’s high school coach has insisted that this situation is why he was recruited, and to never doubt his ability.
Thus, entering Thursday's game against N.C. State, White is anxious -- but in a good way.
“I think just being nervous comes with it, and I hope I’m a little nervous going into it, because I think that always makes people play better,’’ he said. “So I’ve just got to make sure I come in, I stay on edge, and play with some edge and play hard, and just kind of be a scrappy kid. And see what happens out there.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.