UNC's Strickland racking up assists

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s Dexter Strickland ranks fourth in the ACC in assists (5.0 per game)? Who would have thunk it?

Not even the senior guard himself.

“Absolutely not,’’ he said Tuesday, laughing. “I always thought of myself as a just combo guard who could get to the basket, [play] defense. … That’s very important to me, it’s a big accomplishment to be fourth. But I want to be one. And I want my team to be No. 1, also, so I want to continue to do what I can do best.”

It wasn’t too long ago that dishing out assists was anything but Strickland’s best. A shooting guard who never played point in high school, the 6-foot-3 speedster was nonetheless pressed into action as a backup ball handler his freshman season. And it was a tough transition, as he recorded 61 turnovers to go along with 71 assists behind Larry Drew II.

A starter at shooting guard the last two seasons, Strickland made progress in his dual role as backup point guard behind Kendall Marshall -- 82 assists, 54 turnovers as a sophomore; 39 assists, 26 turnovers before he tore his ACL last year. But this season, his ballhandling instincts seem to be coming more naturally.

Over his last three games, Strickland (who is still starting at shooting guard, but averaging about 10 minutes per game as a backup ball handler to freshman Marcus Paige) has recorded 26 assists, and he hopes to build on that total when his 23rd-ranked team plays at Texas on Wednesday.

The difference? Coach Roy Williams -- who said as recently as the preseason that Strickland still wasn’t a true point guard -- said the senior is understanding all the facets of the position better, after playing it for so long.

“There are just so many things you have to think about -- you have to think about guarding your guy, and you have to think about dribbling the ball and who you pass it to and what sets you’re in, what we just called and what defense you’re going to call,’’ Williams said. “I mean, it’s just a whole wide assortment of things other than just playing the game.

“You don’t just have to think about your assignments, you have to think about everybody’s assignment and who is in the game. If you have John Henson in the game, running dribble off secondary, you can throw it up and lob. If you have any of us in this room [at a news conference] in the game, that’s not going to be a play you’re going to run. It really is, mentally, so many different things."

Strickland, who is also averaging 8.9 points and 1.6 turnovers, said watching film of point guards such as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Ty Lawson and Marshall has helped. And in some ways, so did recovering from last season’s ACL injury, he said, because it forced him to slow his pace and look for his teammates instead of always speeding straight for the basket.

“He’s understanding that sometimes passing it a little early is better than holding it a little longer,’’ Williams said. “Sometimes, the more you play and the more you’re put into the position, you get more comfortable.”

Strickland, who is also currently fourth in the league in steals (1.9 per game), said he’d like to lead the ACC in that category, as well. But he credits teammates Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald for making the shots that have given him so many assists the last few games.

“I just focus on getting the ball to them at the right times,’’ he said.

Asked Tuesday if Strickland was moving closer to being a true point guard, Williams said he thinks so.

"You never know until you get into to crux of the ACC season, into the middle of the league and the whole bit," Williams said, "but I’ve been really pleased with what he’s done.”

Fifty assists in 10 games? Strickland -- who could never imagine those sorts of stats a few years back -- has been pleased, as well.

“Being the guard who always drives and gets steals on defense, to being the point guard and getting everyone involved, it’s a good feeling,’’ he said.