The preseason holdup was not related to his July 2011 right ACL injury that forced him to miss the entire 2011-12 season. According to McDonald, any concerns regarding his knee were answered during the summer months. The issue has been a combination of conditioning and confidence.
The former pertains more to shooting while gassed, not conditioning in the traditional sense of running up and down the court. First-year UNC assistant coach Hubert Davis has stripped away a number of stationary shooting drills, instead forcing his perimeter shooters to fire on the run. Whether it’s running from the baseline to the free throw or lateral slides between the sidelines, the intent is increased concentration to make shots when tired.
“It’s form and the mental aspect of elevation,” McDonald told reporters following Saturday’s win over East Tennessee State. “Sometimes when you’re tired, you want to slack off your form and you don’t want to jump as high as you normally do but he tells us every time that if we’re tired to still take that extra energy to jump off and get great elevation on our shots.”
Having to sit out a year made that conditioning even tougher to acquire. There’s no substitute for live game action, which works the same with confidence. It’s one thing to score 25 points against lesser competition in summer league ball; it’s quite another to do it against Division I competition with the nation watching.
In McDonald’s first three games this season, he scored a total of 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting, including a 2-of-6 effort from the 3-point line.
“If you don’t see the ball going through the hole, then that’s really going to get you down, especially if you’re a shooter,” McDonald said.
Over his last six games, however, the Memphis, Tenn. native is averaging 13.5 points per contest on 49.1 percent shooting (27-55). That includes a team-high 52.8 percentage from long range (19-36).
McDonald’s breakthrough occurred against Mississippi State in Maui. He led UNC with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting (6-of-9 3FG) against the Bulldogs and rounded out a solid effort from 3-point territory as the Tar Heels knocked down 15 of their 32 treys.
The red-shirt junior guard paced North Carolina with 24 points and five 3-pointers in his first career start against UAB on Dec. 1 and promptly followed that outing up with a team-best 14 points and four 3-points against ETSU on Saturday.
McDonald has led UNC in scoring three times this season and five times in his career.
When asked following Saturday’s victory if McDonald had regained his confidence, Williams replied: “He got 12 shots in 16 minutes, so he’s pretty confident, I would think.”
“Leslie’s a big threat for us whether he’s coming off the bench or starting, it doesn’t make any difference,” the 10th-year UNC head coach continued.
Junior wing Reggie Bullock acknowledged that he’s seen a difference in McDonald’s confidence level since preseason practice started eight weeks ago.
“He’s been more aggressive, he’s taking open shots and he’s shooting the ball extremely well from the outside,” Bullock said. “He’s just doing whatever he can to help this team succeed.“
McDonald told reporters that he’s more confident than he’s ever been and that his shots are falling the way he wants. That 18-month recovery period may now finally be complete.
“Obviously I’ve been out for a year, and just not being able to play in a collegiate game for a long time, it just was really trying to get back to that way,” McDonald said. “It’s hard. You can ask [Dexter] Strickland or any other person that’s missed a whole year — it’s hard to get back into that routine. But I found it early and now I’m rolling with it.”
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