Tar Heels' White back from mission, on a mission

Jun. 05, 2014 @ 09:36 PM

Two years ago, Stilman White put up one of the most surprising performances in the history of North Carolina basketball.

Starting for the first time because of a wrist injury to point guard Kendall Marshall, the seldom-used freshman from Wilmington had 13 assists and zero turnovers as UNC beat Ohio in the Sweet 16 and lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight.

But White doesn’t want that to be the only thing he’s remembered for. After taking two seasons off for a Mormon mission, White is back on scholarship with the Tar Heels and gearing up for 2014-15.

“I’m not really a person who lives in the past,” White said. “I’m excited to see what I can do this year. Hopefully I showed people in the tournament that I can play in the ACC, I can play at North Carolina, but I feel like I can play a lot better and I can show a lot more to everyone.”

First, White must get back into game shape. He said he only touched a basketball three times during his roughly year-long Mormon mission on the campus of Utah State, which ended in December, and the only working out he did was walking. He was only cleared to play pick-up games two weeks ago after undergoing right ankle surgery in November for an injury he suffered while playing soccer.

Even without the injury, White said that athletes who came back from missions told him it could take six months to shake the rust off fully. During his mission, he woke up each day at 6:30 a.m., studied Scripture in the morning, and then spent from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. spreading the message of Jesus Christ, with breaks only for lunch and dinner.

Television was off-limits, so the only way he kept up with his former UNC teammates was through weekly e-mails sent by his parents, though he was tempted to check in on the games against Duke or N.C. State.

“Part of the experience is to cut out all worldly things,” White said. “So I had to bite the bullet on that one.”

But he knew he wanted to come back to play for the Tar Heels and Coach Roy Williams told him during a recent trip to Wrightsville Beach over spring break that White could return on scholarship.

Speaking to reporters Thursday for the first time since the Kansas loss in 2012, White said he learned more during his mission that “his whole life combined before that,” which he thinks will allow him to become a better basketball player as well as a better person.

Physically, he’s grown from a 150-pound freshman with “a little high school kid body” who was the youngest player on the team to a 173-pound sophomore who turns 22 next month.

But he knows that playing time will be hard to come by. White was thrust into the starting lineup at the end of the 2011-12 season because of injuries to Marshall and backup point guard Dexter Strickland, who tore his ACL.

Williams has done his best to ensure he wouldn’t be stuck in that situation again, recruiting a high-level point guard in each class. As a result, White will begin the year behind all-ACC junior Marcus Paige, sophomore Nate Britt and freshman Joel Berry. White could also be competing for time with senior Luke Davis, who played in 41 games over the past two seasons.

“It’s a lot different than when I first got here when it was just me and Kendall, but that’s something I’m looking forward to,” White said. “I know it’s going to be a lot of competition. I don’t have any clue what my role will be on the team will be next year… but I’m just looking to come in here, regain my game and see what I can do.”

NOTE — White’s return means that Davis will not be on scholarship in 2014-15. Davis transferred from Gardner-Webb as a walk-on but received a scholarship in each of the past two seasons because UNC was under the scholarship limit.

Follow UNC beat writer Harold Gutmann on Twitter at @haroldgut.