CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina wing Leslie McDonald says his body is back to 100 percent. So is his confidence.
So yes, the redshirt junior does plan to play in the Greater NC Pro-Am -- the competition where he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee last July, leading to reconstructive surgery and a redshirt season. It will be a precursor to his return to the active Tar Heels roster next season, and he’s looking forward to it.
“Like I tell everybody, freak accidents happen,” a smiling McDonald said Wednesday. “They can happen anywhere. It could’ve happened in practice, it could have happened in the game. Just for me, I’m not very superstitious, and the Pro-Am itself is not the reason why I hurt myself.”
Granted, there have been times, over the last 10 1/2 months, when the Memphis, Tenn., native has wondered, ‘Why me?’ Coaches and players had lauded his overall improvement in the weeks leading up to his July 14 injury (and Aug. 3 surgery). And there were plenty of times last season when the Tar Heels particularly missed his shooting stroke, as they made only 30.3 percent of their 3-point attempts in ACC play.
“You [think] on that all the time, ‘There so much I can contribute to the team, and I feel like if I would have shot that shot, I probably could have knocked it down.’” McDonald said. “… There were plenty of times where I just wanted to jump out on the court and throw on a jersey.”
When he returned to limited practice drills in January, though, McDonald’s knee was only at about 75 or 80 percent, so he remained in street clothes -- leaving fans to judge his improving health by the athletic shimmies he’d add to his pre-tipoff “Jump Around” dance.
By the NCAA tournament, McDonald said his knee was in the high-80-percent range, and he perhaps could have played in the last couple of games. But he and coach Roy Williams had decided early on that it would be smarter to redshirt.
“Why waste a year?” McDonald asked.
About four-to-six weeks after UNC lost in the NCAA Regional Finals, McDonald said, he was back to 100 percent.
He’s currently playing “in as many pick-up games as I can” with the likes of UNC alumni Marvin Williams, Shammond Williams and Rasheed Wallace, as well as his returning teammates. He is not wearing a brace on the knee; he said he believes he’s as quick as he was last summer; he’s dunking again; and his shooting may be better than ever.
“I think sitting down [because of the knee] actually helped me more, because it really made me focus on my mechanics,’’ he said, referring to his shooting form. “I’m not able to run, I’m not able to cut, so the only thing I could do is work on my mechanics, make sure everything is lined up. I think it definitely helped.”
Although the Tar Heels lost four-fifths of their starting lineup to graduation and early entry into the NBA draft, McDonald, who has inherited a leadership role along with senior Dexter Strickland, is confident in the players coming back and the freshmen coming in.
“I feel like a lot of people are doubting us, but I feel like we’re going to be a good team,’’ he said. “We’re going to be an up-tempo team; we’re going to be very defensive-minded, and up-and-down, and guard-oriented.”
And now that he's healthy, he'll be counted on to be a big part of it.
As for the Pro-Am, which usually heats up in July, McDonald said he may not play in as many games, or as many minutes, as last summer. But he’s eager to get back on that court, and further improve his skills by competing against players besides his teammates.
“I am 100 percent back and the knee feels fine,’’ he said. “I have no problems in the knee. I do the same thing that I did in rehab just to make sure that I’m on the right path -- I stretch and get in the hot and the cold tub -- but as far as feeling any pain in my knee, I have none at all.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.