In time, Carolina’s front line of Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller may come to be regarded as one of the strongest in Tar Heel history, especially if the trio stays intact through the 2012 season.
At point guard, Carolina has a freshman who already has played his way into the record book and earned cult legend status along the way.
Then there’s the shooting guard position.
Figuring out Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald represents the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma.
In any one four-minute segment, or half, or occasionally entire game, either one is capable of looking like a world-beater, the missing piece in the Tar Heel puzzle. Then there are the moments such as Strickland’s ill-advised, rushed jumper from 17 feet just after Carolina had fallen behind 57-55 against Duke last week, a shot specifically cited by Roy Williams as one of the negative turning points in the game, or the rushed drive by McDonald with 2:24 to go against Clemson on Saturday that led Williams to pound his chair in disgust.
In theory, Strickland and McDonald are complementary talents.
Strickland starts and gets most of the minutes because he excels on defense, and can be quite explosive offensively in transition situations. Strickland’s decision making and overall ball handling clearly have improved from his freshman season. But his jump shot is as erratic as his form is often unsightly (leaning backward almost to a 45 degree angle on many of his attempts). It goes in just enough to give one hope, but generally speaking Strickland taking a jump shot in the first 20-25 seconds of a possession is not what Carolina should be looking -- or settling -- for in its halfcourt offense.
McDonald, in contrast, puts up shots from the outside when he is in the game at a rate than might make Ranzino Smith blush. McDonald takes a shot every 2.35 minutes he’s on the court (compared to the team average of 3.24 player minutes per shot) and 62 percent of his shots are three-point attempts. At times in the nonconference schedule, McDonald was astonishingly productive, hitting four or more three pointers in four different games, including five in the first half against Long Beach State.
McDonald’s form has always been good, and shooters with good form eventually come around in the overall percentage (provided reasonable shot selection). In 14 nonconference games, McDonald shot 46 percent from three (23-of-50) and had an effective field goal percentage of 61.6 percent, making him one of Carolina’s top offensive weapons.
But in the ACC it’s been a different story. McDonald is hitting just 17-of-60 (10-38 on 3s) from the field in nine conference games (he missed the first Clemson) game, for an effective field goal percentage of just 36.7 percent. Strickland’s numbers in conference play are a little better, but still not impressive: 23-of-55 from the field including 2-of-11 from three, for an effective field goal mark of 43.6 percent (compared to 56.5 percent in the nonconference schedule). What about Reggie Bullock as another potential two guard? Even with his two huge games -- against Clemson in Chapel Hill and at Boston College -- he is shooting just 19-of-61 from the field in the league (11-of-42 from three), for an effective field goal percentage of 40.2 percent (compared to 55.4 percent in non-league games).
None of those numbers are as high as they need to be if Carolina is to reach its full potential as a team. McDonald and Bullock combined to shoot 1-of-9 on three pointers (many on very good looks) against Duke, which was a major factor in Carolina’s loss. On Saturday against Clemson, the combined 0-of-8 productivity from the field by Strickland, McDonald and Bullock in 58 minutes played was the major reason the game was close.
Indeed, closer inspection of the non-conference stats shows that McDonald and Bullock piled up the points against weaker teams; but in the four early losses plus the Kentucky win, the two combined to shoot just 6-of-26 from three point range.
What’s the recipe for improvement here?
For Strickland, the prescription is simply good shot selection, and understanding that Carolina’s half court offense with the starting unit is now functioning well enough that he literally need never force a jump shot (unless it is very late in the shot clock). A wide open three off good ball movement is worth taking, even if the percentage made is not that great, just to keep the defense honest. Drives to the basket and short pull up jumpers are fair game too, in transition or half court. A three ball that is contested, or any kind of pull-up jumper beyond 12 feet, needs to be left to other players.
For McDonald (and Bullock), it’s about finding the confidence to believe that the first one coming off the bench is going in. Shooting open shots against overmatched opponents (or for that matter, when down big) is quite different than shooting contested shots in close games against quality opponents. The time and space one has to shoot makes a difference, and so does the pressure.
There aren’t many known tricks to becoming a better off-the bench shooter, other than perhaps trying different approaches to mental preparation. (In the recent book “The Art of a Beautiful Game,” Steve Kerr recounts to author Chris Ballard how he became comfortable late in his career as a limited-minute bench shooter by actually practicing sitting around for 20-30 minutes between shots.) Experience and the confidence that comes from successful experience are the only reliable predictors of future success in that department.
Whether McDonald can make the mental breakthrough needed to convert his clear potential as an off-the-bench perimeter threat into the realized item against quality opposition is one of the most crucial unanswered questions about this evolving Tar Heel team. Even with Carolina shooting no better from outside than it has so far in ACC play, the Tar Heels figure to be at least slight favorites in four if not five of its remaining six league games (the injury to Chris Singleton probably makes Carolina a favorite in the return game against FSU on March 2).
But Carolina now legitimately has higher aspirations than just getting 12 or 13 wins in the league, as impressive as that is. Getting at least a share of the regular season title is a plausible goal, and so is trying to get a 2 or a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Cutting down nets along the way in Greensboro is hardly out of the question either.
But you don’t win meaningful basketball games in March against quality opponents without hitting some outside shots, and without being quite disciplined in shot selection. Disciplined yet aggressive -- it’s a tough balance to find, especially for shooters. A shooter who loses the courage to shoot takes himself out of the game, and no one should want that for Strickland or McDonald. Roy Williams can live with a bad shot or two from Strickland a night if that is the price for him being a force in the game as a whole, so long as they don’t come at times when it’s imperative for the team to get a high-percentage shot.
Likewise, Roy Williams can also live with McDonald or Bullock forcing a drive that really isn’t there every once in a while as part of the price of being sure neither one settles for becoming a wholly one-dimensional three-point shooter. But at the rate both players shoot the ball (Bullock shoots the ball at virtually the same frequency as McDonald), the ball really needs to start going into the hole more often.
The more often it does, the more games Carolina will end up playing this year.
Sometimes, it’s just that simple.
Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.