How should players like Dex be remembered? Does it matter?
Dexter Strickland’s last jump shot as a Tar Heel was a three point attempt with 9:02 left in the second half of Carolina’s 2nd (or is it 3rd) round loss to Kansas. It missed. Chances are if you are reading this piece you already knew that.
There is nothing wrong with a player missing their final jump shot. Duke’s Seth Curry, who was one of if not the best jump shooters in college basketball, missed his final jump shot. So did Rashad McCants. I’d even venture to say the majority of college players miss their final jumper.
Obviously, I didn’t bring up Dexter Strickland’s final jump shot just to highlight the fact that it was off the mark. It has only been three weeks since Carolina lost to Kansas and almost every Carolina fan has forgotten the shot. However, even though that particular shot didn’t make the cut in the collective Tar Heel fanbase hippocampus, the vast majority of fans would likely guess (correctly) that it didn’t go in.
I’m not going to spend this piece dissecting Dexter Strickland’s jump shot nor am I going to spend it examining the collective reaction of the Carolina fanbase to Dexter Strickland’s jump shot. Sure I’ll touch on both of those, but only in the context of my larger thesis:
Dex’s jersey won’t hang from the banners of the Dean Dome. Nor will a championship banner that Strickland helped win. Dexter Strickland is the first four year player at Carolina under Roy Williams to not win a NCAA Championship during his time as a Tar Heel. However, that ends up being more of a credit to Roy’s success since returning to Chapel Hill than a detriment to Strickland’s Career.
Slightly more damning is the fact that Carolina failed to win a single tournament title of any kind since Strickland stepped on campus. No preseason tournament titles, no ACC tournament titles, no NIT titles, and obviously no NCAA tournament titles.
Clearly, this title drought is not Strickland’s fault. Only the most shortsighted of fans would come away with the conclusion that Strickland is what held Carolina back from winning a championship over the past four years.1 The significance of the drought is that unlike players such as Melvin Scott or Marcus Ginyard who are pretty good comparisons in terms of their North Carolina careers, Strickland doesn’t have a connection to a team whose legacy is indelible.
Consequently in our quest to understand Strickland’s legacy as a Tar Heel we must move on to looking at him individually. The harshest (and not entirely uncommon) criticism of Dexter Strickland as a player: “Dexter Strickland did not improve from his freshman to his senior year.”
I cannot emphasize enough how false this statement truly is. Anyone who watched Dexter Strickland saw that he substantially improved at least one facet of his game every year at Carolina. His sophomore year he became a more controlled weapon in transition and established himself as an elite perimeter defender. His junior year he continued to defend at a high level and became lethal in transition, continually finishing breakaway layups in traffic2 but was derailed by a torn ACL. This past year (his senior season) Strickland’s explosiveness attacking the basket was limited, but he made up for it in part by excelling as a passer and led the nation in assist to turnover ratio (3.19 dimes for every turnover).3 Strickland’s improvements were demonstrated statistically and also passed the eye test. So why the hell do people accuse him of not improving?
It all comes back to the jump shot. Picture for a moment the textbook jumper. Dexter’s is the exact opposite of what you are picturing. He launches the ball from behind his head and manages to fade away on every jumper he takes. And I mean every jumper. There are few things like seeing a player drive into an opening five feet from the basket and proceed to shoot with his body at a 60-degree angle to the court. After all it hasn’t been dubbed the YOLO fader for nothing.
The form of Dexter Strickland YOLO jumper hasn’t improved since he got on campus. If anything he probably faded away more as a senior than he did as a freshman. Complicating this, Strickland never really was able to consistently hit the shot,4 especially from behind the three point arc. Furthermore, despite his otherwise very good decision making as a senior, Dex had a penchant for pulling out the YOLO fader at times when the game was slipping out of hand and Carolina needed a made bucket.
Fans naturally extrapolate everything I just said in the last two paragraphs to conclude that Strickland didn’t work on his shot enough in his four years. I seriously doubt this is the case. Dexter Strickland probably took as many jump shots in practice as PJ Hairston, Reggie Bullock or Harrison Barnes. He probably had gotten pretty good at consistently knocking down his jump shot in practice. In a couple interviews this year, Strickland admitted being frustrated with how his shot wasn’t falling during games. The explanation is quite simple. Mechanics are less important in practice, but when things speed up in real games the downside of poor mechanics rears its ugly head. Consequently the more accurate criticism is that Dexter Strickland didn’t dedicate himself to changing his shooting form… which by the way is really hard and frustrating to do.5
So what does all of this mean for Dex’s legacy? His teams didn’t achieve the immortality granted by winning championships. He improved significantly as a player, but that this improvement was clouded by the fact he was never able to escape the YOLO fader. He spent four years dedicated to being a part of Carolina Basketball and didn’t bolt or check out when he wasn’t able to spend the majority of his time playing the point guard position.6 He was constantly viewed by Carolina fans as the “weak link” of the lineup as a senior and was never the focal point of the team. Prior to his injury he provided some spectacular highlight dunks against Duke, including one of the worst charge calls ever.7
Ultimately Dexter Strickland was many of things and he elicited strong opinions/emotions in the Carolina fanbase, both negative and positive. Somewhat paradoxically though, he will likely fade away from the consciousness of most casual Tar Heel fans.8 In twenty years if you asked students at UNC to name players from the 2010’s who started multiple seasons for the Tar Heels, most wouldn’t come up with Dexter Strickland’s name.
For a smaller group who avidly followed Carolina Basketball over the past couple four years, Dexter Strickland will be remembered. For explosive dunks over Dukies and his ill-timed YOLO faders. It’s one of the benefits of staying in college four years: you’re around long enough so that those watching will remember you.
It’s hard for us to avoid our opinions of things trending to one pole or another. This is both a product of today’s media (sports and political coverage alike) and the fact that it’s easier to simply label things in a binary fashion rather than viewing them as complex and multifaceted. There are a good number of Carolina fans who will label Strickland as a disappointment. He wasn’t. He wasn’t a great player either. In actuality Strickland is probably the prime example of a good player. As fans we have a hard time figuring out how to talk about or remember good players. It’s much simpler to label them as great or as disappointments. But if you read everything I said above you should realize that neither of those labels is appropriate for Strickland. Instead he was simply, good.
Farewell Dexter Strickland. I’m really not sure what your legacy will be, but you’ll always be a Tar Heel. Perhaps that is a legacy enough.
Feature Photo by Todd Melet
Roy needs to use more timeouts.