Leslie McDonald has progressed along the natural path for most young ballplayers since arriving in Chapel Hill from Tennessee -- until now, anyway. A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee, which he suffered in a summer-league game, will delay his physical growth for at least another year.
McDonald did not burst onto the scene as an instant superstar, as so many have come to expect from freshmen. He conceded from the start that he felt nervous and confused.
He never quit, though. So as he moved from his freshman season to his sophomore, he started to reveal the talent Coach Roy Williams saw in McDonald when he recruited him.
The growth in McDonald's confidence and Williams' confidence in him became evident last season. McDonald made great strides at both ends of the court.
"I expect him to make it every time he shoots it," Williams liked to say.
McDonald is a superb athlete who did not always show his raw physical gifts because of self-doubt. As his career progressed, his ability to run the court and explode off the floor to the basket has become more evident.
McDonald made (51-134, 38.1 percent) of his 3-point attempts as a sophomore, while shooting slightly better on 2-point tries (35-89, 40 percent).
The logical next step would be for him to become an even better defender and a more consistent shooter in 2011-12. His knowledge of angles on defense and what is a good shot on offense have improved greatly.
As a freshman, he watched as opponents drove by him for baskets with ease. The lack of patience and knowledge to get his feet set hurt him on offense.
Before that initial season ended, he did learn to play harder, if not always well. In a game at Wake Forest, he became one of the first players on that team that year to dive on the floor for a loose ball. When McDonald went skidding across the court at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, you just had the idea he was going to become a player before his career ended.
Such moments also inspire teammates.
Now he is at least a year away from showing what two years of improving can mean. An ACL tear is no longer a career-ending injury, but it still requires a painful and lengthy rehabilitation.
If the usual procedure is followed, his physician will have McDonald wait until the swelling subsides before performing surgery.
One sad part of the story is that unfortunately for McDonald, no matter how much his coaches and teammates work to make him feel a part of the team, an injured player sidelined for a lengthy period is almost always living in an athletic void. He is part of the team, but is isolated by the very nature of sitting on the bench in a suit at games and on the sideline at practice.
Nonetheless, there are long-term benefits in all of this for McDonald and the Tar Heels. When several of the key players leave for the National Basketball Association after the 2012 season, McDonald should be healed and will have two seasons to play and lead his younger teammates.
A successful rehabilitation will equate into even greater maturity.
Next season's team is destined to be one of the best in the nation. Being forced to sit and watch will be tough on McDonald, but if he can make himself approach the season with a greater level of maturity, which means watching practice and games closely, learning from what he sees and then bringing that to the team in 2012-13, he can become a central figures in keeping the Tar Heels from slipping when they have to undergo another rebuilding year.
In the meantime, one person's misfortune is another's opportunity. In this case, freshman guard P.J. Hairston should be the benefactor of McDonald's injury.
Part of McDonald's role will be to mentor Hairston, help him overcome his transition from high school to college ball. McDonald could even help Hairston avoid some of the potholes that tripped McDonald that first season.
This will be the best way for McDonald to stay engaged with his teammates. He can be a genuine asset if he is willing to avoid self-pity and use his experience to explain what he sees from the bench and at practice.
In the end, the result of our experiences are truly what we make of them.