NOTE: This article originally appered in the Dec. 31 issue of CAROLINA.
by Robbi Pickeral
CHAPEL HILL -- On one hand, North Carolina senior Leslie McDonald is back where he wants to be: in uniform, on the court, taking and making 3s.
On the other hand, the reserve wing is still working his way back to where he still knows he can be: leading, defending, making a bigger impact.
"The shots are going down, so that's definitely a confidence booster,'' the 6-foot-5 shooter from Memphis said after Saturday's victory over Northern Kentucky. "But I've still got to get the rust out, still got to play better defense ... I've still got to help us get better as a team."
It's been less than two weeks since McDonald was reinstated by the NCAA after sitting out the first nine games of the season for accepting impermissible extra benefits. But in his three games back, he's made his presence known, particularly on offense, knocking down 47.1 percent of his 3-point attempts while averaging 11.7 points.
Perhaps most key: he already has connected on more 3s (eight total) than every other Tar Heel not named "Marcus Paige," combined.
"He balances our backcourt scoring a lot,'' said Paige, UNC's leading scorer at 18.7 ppg. "It rested heavily on me for the beginning games. Now he gives other teams another player to gameplan for, recognizing he's a great 3-point shooter. That frees up everything."
Indeed, until McDonald's return, those players not named "Paige" had made only 4 of 28 shots from beyond the arc, putting a great big bullseye (and sometimes a box-and-one defense) on the sophomore guard.
Sitting on the bench in street clothes those first nine games, McDonald said he was itching to help - "even if I wasn't knocking down shots, I just wanted to be able to get in there, pass the ball around, get people open, play," he said.
So even as he primarily practiced with the reserves on the "blue" team as his eligibility issues were being sorted out, McDonald used that time to try to hone his approach. "I learned new things,'' he said. "Getting open, getting other people open and really working on my shot consistently."
When he checked into his first game of the season, Dec. 18 against Texas, just hours after the school officially announced he had been reinstated, McDonald was both eager and hyped. But he said he still couldn't quite believe he was playing again, even as finished with 15 points in 22 minutes off the bench in the loss.
It finally hit the next day in practice, he said, when he found himself teamed again with the likes of Paige, James Michael McAdoo and the Tar Heels' other top players.
"Usually we split up, and run dummy offense -- and they're like, 'Leslie, no you're over here,'" McDonald remembered, smiling. "Normally I run to the 'blue' [team's] side, and I was like, 'My bad - I'm back!'"
And he wants to make the most of it.
McDonald, who sat out the entire 2011-12 season because of a knee injury, has reiterated that regrets the actions that kept him sidelined for so long, saying in a statement upon his reinstatement that he felt blessed to have another chance to play for UNC, and with his teammates: "I apologize to everyone who cares about the University of North Carolina and will do what I can to make up for it. You never know how much you love to play the game until you are not allowed to."
Even as McDonald continues to shoot off the rust, UNC coach Roy Williams said Friday that having him back - especially his ability to score from long distance - benefits the team, and "hopefully it's going to help us more down the line."
That's McDonald's aim. The senior said more practices will continue to help him get back into sync with his teammates, and playing lock-down defense will be a personal goal.
"It's hard when you're on the sideline, not dressed [in uniform], you kind of feel a little bit distanced from the team,'' he said. "But now that I'm back on the court, knocking down shots, going through plays, doing the little things, it feels good.
"... If I can be consistent from outside, play great defense, get my teammates open shots, those are the biggest things. I don't care how we do it, how many points I score, as long as we get wins."