The ultimate pinnacle of the 2013-14 North Carolina season may be determined by a single player who has yet to bring his A-game more than a couple times all season. The biggest X-factor for the future of the Heels is senior Leslie McDonald.
The term "X-factor" gets overused because it usually is not applied correctly in context.
Wednesday night against NC State, Marcus Paige made his case for being the ACC Player of the Year. He is not an X-factor on this North Carolina team—he is a star.
James Michael McAdoo has scored in double-figures in 13 of 15 conference games. He can get to the foul line almost at will. There is very little boom-or-bust about his game, the Florida State results notwithstanding. He is no X-factor.
With the constant flux in the frontcourt, no one man is counted on to do too much. Sometimes Kennedy Meeks steps up with a huge performance, other times, Brice Johnson does. There is nothing riding on the output of one specific forward in the rotation outside of McAdoo.
With J.P. Tokoto, his usefulness is on the defensive end. He hustles, leaps, defends and does all the little things and he can also finish strong in the paint. There is nothing remotely unpredictable in the nature of his game, but he brings it every night.
While Tokoto is the designated defender, Leslie McDonald has morphed into the designated shooter—a role he is blatantly ill-suited for. However, McDonald is the only player on the roster with the skill set necessary to hold such a title outside of Paige, who is clearly overqualified. Thus, McDonald is the biggest X-factor on this squad as someone who can single-handedly alter the ceiling of this team moving forward.
His season numbers are, strictly speaking, horrendous.
McDonald is a poor free-throw shooter (65.0 percent) and has been awful from the field (38.3 percent). For someone who was supposed to be the deep threat to spread the floor, the most painful percentage though is probably his three-point shot: 30.8 percent on 104 attempts.
All the numbers combine to make McDonald one of the most inefficient shooters and scorers on the team. It doesn't help that he does little else.
McDonald’s defense has been terrible this season.. He has grabbed eight steals and two blocks...in total for the year. He has as many assists as backup big Brice Johnson and he's grabbed fewer rebounds than backup point guard Nate Britt. All McDonald is used for on this team is shooting, which makes it almost heartbreaking that he is doing it so poorly this season.
Of course, there is no denying that McDonald was a main reason why UNC beat Duke back on February 20. The senior guard scored a season-high 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting. He didn't miss a single two-point attempt all game.
Paige and McAdoo both struggled to find openings in that game. Neither reached their season average in points—Paige finished with 13 points while McAdoo collected only 10 and made it to the free-throw line just one time.
Even though he has been highly unreliable, McDonald is third on the team in points per game, averaging 10.8. When Paige and McAdoo both come up small, which doesn't happen often, McDonald has shown the ability to step in and perform.
The Duke performance was McDonald's best game of the season and arguably the best game of his entire career, considering the timing and opponent.
The match against NC State a week prior was another big one for McDonald and the Heels. Paige and McAdoo combined to shoot 8-of-25 from the floor. McDonald chipped in with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting. UNC was able to trade baskets in the second half after getting out to a large lead, but McDonald was the Heels' top performer in a crucial game for conference seeding.
For a team that relies on one player (Paige) so much for all its outside offense, there becomes no one more important to future success than that second option. Although NC State was not able to do it on Wednesday night, good teams will be able to limit Paige's chances moving forward.
Duke succeeded a bit, as Paige finished with just 10 field-goal attempts and one made three. In this extended winning streak, Paige failed to tally multiple made threes just one other time: That first NC State meeting when McDonald again came up large.
This is all not to say that the success of the Heels rests on the performance of Leslie McDonald. That statement is obviously false.
However, once postseason play rolls around, UNC will face some better defensive teams than it has seen this past month, and someone will be able to hold Paige down. When that time comes, a UNC victory will come down to McDonald hitting shots.