“I wish we could play right now,” McDonald told reporters on Thursday afternoon, roughly 30 hours before North Carolina opens the 2012-13 season against Gardner-Webb. “I’m anxious. It’s been a year since I’ve played, so just being able to get back out there…. I played my first exhibition game and now playing the real thing, I’m so anxious.”
The Memphis, Tenn. native indicated that UNC’s exhibition victory over Shaw two weeks ago cleared out the nervousness and jitter bugs that had slowly grown in his gut, while stressing that he doesn’t feel as though he’s starting over his collegiate career.
Although, in a way, McDonald is starting over. A lot has changed since he played 17 minutes in the Elite Eight loss to Kentucky in 2011. Classmate John Henson is now playing in the NBA, along with Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall. Reserve big men Justin Knox and Justin Watts have since graduated, leaving McDonald and Dexter Strickland as the lone Tar Heels that logged minutes in that final NCAA tournament game in Newark two years ago.
McDonald will come off the bench once again on Friday, but he’ll do it as a veteran, as an expected team leader and as a much-needed scoring option.
“One of my biggest goals is not to put so much pressure on myself,” McDonald said. “I know I have to do a lot of things since I’m a senior on the court and I’m very experienced, but I try not to put so much pressure so that I can play my game and let the game come to me.”
McDonald appeared set to emerge as a vital part of last season’s vaunted squad. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams had praised the rising junior as his team’s best outside shooter, referencing a practice session in which McDonald drained 17 consecutive 3-pointers around the horn.
Those plans evaporated, however, at the N.C. Pro-Am on July 14, 2011. McDonald made a cut on the perimeter and his right knee buckled. Three weeks later, he underwent surgery to reconstruct the ACL and repair his meniscus.
When asked on Thursday if he had returned to that level of play just prior to his injury, McDonald replied: “I’m not sure.”
While McDonald is 100 percent health-wise, he’s not ready to proclaim that he is 100 percent playing-wise.
Williams attempted to offer an explanation when asked the same question.
“I wish I could give you a definitive answer,” Williams said. “The last couple of practices have been really good practices for him, but I still think the idea of getting back into game action again for the first time in such a long time is a little bit of a block there. We’ll have to wait and see.
“I really think he’s going to handle it pretty well, but it was just that he really did take such a big step forward at that point a year-and-a-half ago now. I think that was just a little unusual how much he did step forward at that time.“
Williams acknowledged that McDonald’s improved play at that time was evident only in pickup and summer league games, as the emergence took place in the months following the Elite Eight loss.
McDonald understands the expectations awaiting not only him, but also his perimeter teammates this season. With youth and inexperience clogging the interior, the Tar Heels will have to score more effectively from the outside than they have in recent years.
“It’s hard because we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, especially if its open shots or if somebody is contesting your shot,” McDonald said. “Especially with the open shots, you have to knock them down. You feel like you have to knock them down. As a team, we just reiterate to be calm, relax and know that you can make the shot because you’ve made it plenty of times in practice.”
If there is anything lacking from McDonald’s game heading into the season opener, it’s assuredly not self-confidence.
North Carolina opened the 2005-06 season against Gardner-Webb and needed a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left from David Noel to lift the Tar Heels to an 83-80 victory.
When asked whose number would be called to take a possible game-winning shot on Friday, McDonald paused before saying he didn’t know.
Then, with a wide grin, he offered: “I’ll gladly take it.”
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