Leslie McDonald had modest goals for the summer of 2012. Unlike so many players who have big offseason checklists, he didn't want to overhaul his shot, develop a new go-to offensive move, or gain or lose a significant amount of weight.
No, McDonald's goal was more basic: "My first goal," he says with a grin, "was to just get past the summer."
You can understand his hesitation to proclaim big goals. In the summer of 2011, the Memphis native was probably the most buzzed-about of the current Tar Heels among his teammates. He'd made some dramatic improvements and was playing well in summer pickup games and the offseason Pro-Am. But it was in one of those Pro-Am games, on July 14, 2011, when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The resulting surgery and rehab process kept him out for the entire 2011-12 season.
That's not to say, though, that he didn't consider back. As the injuries piled up for the 2012 Tar Heels, and as McDonald began to work back into practice on a more regular basis, there were a few moments when he considered dropping his redshirt and asking to play ahead of schedule.
"Every now and then, I got really close," he says. "But I didn't want to come back too soon. I knew I had to do what was best for me. I've talked to a lot of guys who had the same injury I had, and they said the best thing to do is wait a year and make sure your body is completely healthy, because you don't want to go through that process again."
So McDonald spent the entire 2011-12 season away from game action, but not away from his teammates. He was most noticeable at the start of home games, when he would occasionally debut new dance moves to the sounds of "Jump Around."
But it was during the games that he began to notice some details he'd often heard discussed by the coaches. As soon as Roy Williams returned to Carolina in the spring of 2003, one of his favorite sayings was, "The eye in the sky doesn't lie." The meaning was simple: players might not fully believe what a coach tells them, but they don't have any choice about believing it when they see it on game film.
The 2005 championship team wasn't fully convinced they needed to improve their defensive effort; when they saw it on video, suddenly they were convinced.
McDonald had a similar revelatory experience, but because he watched every game from the sidelines rather than on the court, he didn't even have to wait for the film.
"The injury was a curse, but it was also a blessing in disguise," he says. "I spent a year seeing what the coaches were telling the team. I know what they want, and I've seen examples of why they want it. I know what they're talking about now."
Asked for an example, McDonald-of course-refers to defense. "Coach has always talked about making sure there's pressure on the ball and keeping so much pressure that your man can't see or react to things. I didn't truly understand that until I observed it. Sometimes, as a player you think you're putting pressure on the ball, and really you're not doing it at all. I see the value of playing defense all the time now. You really can turn defense into your first option for offense."
It's nice that McDonald has developed a nose for defense, but the chatter about him has mostly focused on his offense. As a sophomore, he took over 60 percent of his shots from beyond the three-point line. A career 33.2% shooter from the arc, he's worked on making his perimeter game more consistent, but he's also tried to diversify his offense.
"I don't want to just be a shooter," he says. "I want to make some plays for other people. I want to attack the basket, because that opens up shots for other guys. If I attack the lane and make a layup, that's great. And maybe the next time, the defense comes over to cut off that drive and I can pass to someone in the post or one of our wings to get them a shot."
As he starts describing his upcoming season, the always-congenial McDonald is even more animated. By the time the Tar Heels face Gardner-Webb in the season opener, it will have been 532 days since he last played in a college basketball game.
Last week, he participated in a cover shoot with Dexter Strickland for the basketball preview issue of Tar Heel Monthly. He wore his blue Carolina jersey for the shoot, and said it was the first time he'd worn the uniform since his injury.
While Strickland finished a rehab session with Jonas Sahratian, McDonald passed the time shooting jumpers on the Smith Center court. After knocking down a 15-footer, he paused.
"It feels so good to have this jersey on again," he said.