Entering the Texas contest on Dec. 18, Tar Heels not named Marcus Paige had combined for four made 3-pointers on 28 attempts – good for a 14.3 percent clip. McDonald matched that total in his first game back against the Longhorns with a 4-of-9 display from beyond the arc.
In Friday’s 75-60 win over Northern Kentucky, McDonald drilled his first three 3-pointers to give UNC a 22-8 lead with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. That type of rapid-fire outburst had been reserved solely for Paige through the first nine games of the season.
“Making shots makes everybody better, there’s no question about that,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters following the game when asked about McDonald’s perimeter contributions. “He made three of them in the first half… You can’t have better shots than he had in the second half, but one of them he shot it so quickly on the semi-break where he pulled up and shot the ball and didn’t even have a grip on it. And so I jumped on his rear end then. He’s been here long enough to know that you don’t do that.
“But Leslie does have an ability to shoot the ball and that really helps us. Hopefully it’s going to help us even more down the line.”
McDonald misfired on his final four 3-pointers, including a pair of open looks, but his shooting ability forced NKU to account for his presence around the perimeter. Late in the second half, the fifth-year senior received a pass in transition in the right corner. A Norse defender quickly collapsed and McDonald found Jackson Simmons underneath for a lay-up.
McDonald finished with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting (3-of-7 from 3). His lone 2-point field goal came from the right wing with his toes brushing the 3-point line.
The Memphis, Tenn. native acknowledged after the game that he’s still working to get the rust out after sitting out the first nine contests. While McDonald primarily practiced with the reserves during his eligibility process, there were a handful of positives in play, including being able to practice against UNC’s starting lineup.
“In practice, I was always getting shots up,” McDonald said. “… I learned new things. Getting open, getting other people open and really working on my shot consistently.”
And while he noticed the difficulty in finding perimeter scoring outside of Paige while he sat on the bench, his desires were much more basic.
“I just wanted to play,” McDonald said. “Even if I wasn’t knocking down shots, just being able to pass, move the ball around and get somebody open. I was just itching to play. Maybe I could be an asset to the team and help out with the shooting, but I really didn’t know my first game back. But I was glad the shots were knocking down and I was able to spread the floor out a little bit better.”
McDonald is shooting 47.1 percent from 3-point range (8-of-17) on the season. After three games, he’s alone in second place on the team in made 3-pointers by four makes.
“He balances our backcourt scoring a lot,” Paige said. “It rested heavily on me for a lot of the beginning games. Now, he gives the team another player to game plan for, to strategize for, in recognizing he’s a great 3-point shooter, which kind of frees up everything. And it should allow the bigs to have a little bit more room to operate as well. His presence has definitely helped us so far.”
The key for McDonald will be in carrying his 3-point efficiency into ACC play. Dating back to the 2010-11 season, he has converted 45.5 percent (51-112) of his treys during regular season nonconference games. In conference and postseason games, however, McDonald’s 3-point field goal percentage has dropped to 30.8 percent (45-of-146).
There are still other issues to work out - namely, free throw shooting and UNC’s incredible knack of playing up or down to its opponent’s level – but the glaring concern from the beyond the arc has been reduced significantly by McDonald’s return.