Paige makes his mark as UNC point guard
The important role of a point guard in Roy Williams’ up-tempo, free-flowing offense is what drew Marcus Paige to North Carolina.
It also is what has put him under more pressure than almost any other freshman in the country this season.
“I can only imagine,” sophomore James Michael McAdoo said. “I had it easy as a freshman coming in and just being able to take a backseat role, but Marcus, he’s the point guard for the University of North Carolina. I can only imagine the pressures that come with that.”
McAdoo could ease into his college career playing behind Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Paige had to immediately replace Kendall Marshall, who set the ACC record for assists a year ago.
Midway through the season, Paige said he feels comfortable in the spotlight.
“In reality, no one has higher expectations for me than myself and Coach,” Paige said Tuesday. “So I just try and worry about that, and also trying to keep all my teammates happy.”
Still, he didn’t expect to join a select group of Tar Heel point guards who started as freshmen, a list that includes Phil Ford, Kenny Smith, Ed Cota and Raymond Felton.
When Paige committed halfway through his junior year of high school, he thought he would be backing up Larry Drew II and Marshall this year. But Drew soon transferred, and Marshall delivered some more unexpected news last season.
“He let me know, at some point (in) his sophomore year, that he was probably going to leave and wished me the best and told me to be ready,” Paige said.
While Paige said he was “bummed out” he wouldn’t get to play with Marshall, he also was excited for the chance to run the team.
“It happens at places like Carolina and Kentucky — guys leave, so you always have to be ready,” Paige said. “And as a player, you always think you’re good enough, so I didn’t have any problems with the departures.”
Marshall, who started as a freshman after Drew left, had some advice, as well.
“He told me to try and be a leader even though I’m young,” Paige said. “Eventually, the guys will listen to you and respect you.”
The starting position was thought to be up for grabs — senior Dexter Strickland had been a backup point guard for the past three seasons. But before Williams held his first practice, he announced at a preseason news conference that Paige would be his starter.
Paige never had been told that directly. So he received the news at the same time as everyone else — actually, slightly later, when family members saw Williams’ statement online and called to ask Paige about it.
“I was a little surprised at the way he came out and said it,” Paige said. “(Williams) also said it wasn’t guaranteed, and I had to earn it at practice. I took it as a challenge. He’s basically putting confidence in me and hoping I’d respond in a good way.”
Still, there was an adjustment period. UNC’s first game was the first time in Paige’s career that he didn’t record a single assist. Through four games, he still had more turnovers (15) than assists (13) and was shooting just 32 percent (11 of 34).
Paige said it took some time to get comfortable with his teammates and their tendencies, such as where and how they wanted the ball. At the same time, the 6-0, 157-pound freshman needed to adjust to the speed and physicality of college basketball and get used to opponents who were just as skilled.
“In high school, you were the man,” Paige said. “You could do whatever you wanted pretty much. But now there’s 10 guys on the floor who are equally talented and bigger, stronger guys.”
The lefty said he turned the corner after the Christmas break, starting with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in the win against UNLV.
Before, he was content to just start the offense, pass the ball around and set screens. Now he’s more aggressive attacking the basket and more willing to use his athleticism to freelance and create opportunities for himself and his teammates.
Still, ever since Williams initially named him the starting point guard, there’s been speculation about whether it’s deserved. When he missed the UAB game with an injured shoulder, Strickland had nine assists.
Williams has rotated through three different centers, but his confidence in Paige hasn’t wavered. During the ACC coaches’ weekly teleconference Monday, Williams was asked if the point guard situation was settled yet.
“At point guard?” Williams said. “(Paige) started every game ... that he’s been healthy enough to play. My guess is he’ll continue to. That position is not very unsettled.”