Before the season started, Roy Williams was unequivocal about Dexter Strickland's position on the 2012-13 Tar Heels.
"Dexter has never been a point guard," the head coach said on the day before practice began.
Well, maybe he hasn't. But quietly, without much attention, he might be turning into one.
Strickland had his first career double-double against East Carolina on Saturday, scoring 12 points and handing out ten assists. He has 26 assists over his last three games and with an assist/turnover ratio over 3:1 through 10 games, he's vastly improved on a career mark in that category that was barely over 1:1 entering this season.
He's scoring (just enough). He's passing (more than ever before). He's defending capably, although no one was a particular standout in that category after the Pirates put up 61 second-half points. Granted, though, his 19 steals lead the team this year and he recorded three of them against ECU.
Could it be that as an old, wise senior, the once-frenetic Strickland has turned into one of Carolina's steadiest backcourt players? It might not be a coincidence that in the two Tar Heel losses, Strickland has a total of three assists (1.5 per game), and in the eight wins, he has 47 (5.9 per game).
It's hard to reconcile the image you tend to have of Strickland if you've watched his three previous years at Carolina--the freewheeling, occasionally too trigger-happy guard who usually takes the most direct, speedy route to the basket regardless of who might be standing in front of the goal--with this new Strickland. He looks like a savvy player. He looks like an efficient player (his 30 free throw attempts are second only to James Michael McAdoo, who has taken 55 more field goal attempts than Strickland). He looks like, well, he looks like a senior, now that you mention it.
He makes little plays that matter. He didn't get an assist for it, but on Carolina's first possession of the second half, he got his hands on a loose ball that turned into an easy basket for Brice Johnson. And even as Williams constantly juggled his lineups late in the game, Strickland was the only player on the court for the entire final 10:55. In those final minutes, he had five points, four assists and a steal while missing only one shot.
"It's confidence," the New Jersey native said. "My confidence is at an all-time high. But I also can't put it all on myself. It's because of Reggie, Leslie and P.J. stepping up and making shots, and Brice and McAdoo being ready to catch the ball off penetration."
Strickland also had a unique viewpoint on the play of his backcourt mate Marcus Paige. There have been times this season that you could make the argument that although Paige is the starting point guard and Strickland the starting shooting guard, Paige might be the more effective scorer while Strickland is the more effective point guard. Yes, Williams said Strickland had never been a point guard, but that's who was running the team with six minutes left against the Pirates and the game in doubt.
As Williams got even more creative with his lineups late in the game, he was comfortable subbing out Paige and using J.P. Tokoto on defense, which left Strickland as the lead guard. The results weren't flawless, as the ECU press caused some late struggles, but Strickland did score or assist on five of Carolina's final seven points, including three of four late free throws in a game that suddenly felt very tight (due partially to the fact that ECU coach Jeff Lebo showed some major Dean Smith influence in the way he handled the final minutes, especially in the way he called the "make them think is possible" timeouts early in his team's comeback).
Strickland hit at least 50 percent of his field goals for the fourth time in the last five games after doing it just once in his first five. You still kind of get that, "Oh, Dexter," feeling when he leans back on one of those jumpers, but then you look up and he's three for his last six from the three-point line.
More impressive, though, is the way he runs the team. He gets the ball late in the game and...you kind of want him to have it. Things happen when Strickland has the ball. As Lebo astutely pointed out after the game, "I like experienced guys."
That's exactly the advantage Strickland has over Paige right now. One day Paige will be the player with the advantage of experience, and a library of dozens of college games from which he can draw. Right now, though, it's Strickland showing the advantages of experience. His most notable characteristic has always been his athleticism, speed and aggressiveness. He still has all of that, even after an ACL injury. Now he's combining it with a high hoops IQ.
Carolina needs both Strickland and Paige and can't be successful this season without both of them. It's a nice luxury, though, that for now Strickland has played even more comprehensively than you might have thought possible.
"You have to know where the comfort zone is for guys, and where they like to shoot it," Strickland said of his ability to spread the ball around. "I know how Reggie and P.J. and Leslie like to shoot and where they get a high percentage of their shots on the floor."
After the senior finished addressing the media, he rounded up a manager and headed back to the court. It was time to get up some shots.