North Carolina Basketball: Will Marcus Paige Be Worth the Wait?

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North Carolina Basketball: Will Marcus Paige Be Worth the Wait?
USA TODAY Sports
Marcus Paige has struggled with his shot and handle this season

North Carolina coach Roy Williams hitched his wagon to freshman point guard Marcus Paige before the start of the season, and there are no reinforcements on the horizon.

Williams declared Paige his starter in the preseason, making Paige just the third Tar Heel point guard to start his first career game since Williams became coach.  And one of the others, Quentin Thomas, only started because veteran starter Raymond Felton had to sit out the 2004-05 season opener.

There are no other true points on the roster, although senior Dexter Strickland and junior Leslie McDonald could fill the role in an emergency. Nate Britt, rated the twelfth-best point guard in the high school class of 2013, is signed for next season, but he’s currently sitting out with a meniscus tear.

So, Williams has come ashore and burned the boats. Paige will have to develop into an ACC point guard—something the previous two players to start their debut never did. Thomas sat behind Felton, who became a Top 5 pick in the NBA Draft.  Frasor manned the point for a 23-8 season before giving way to freshman Ty Lawson, another future lottery pick.

Paige got off on the wrong foot, recording more turnovers than assists in two of his first three games.  Stats don’t reflect the true concern over Paige, however. With him running the show, the team appeared lost at times as Butler and Indiana built up huge leads and cruised to early-season wins. The Heels were also thumped by Texas and started the ACC season with back-to-back losses. Paige has struggled with his shot and handle.

All of which is part of the plan, according to coach Roy Williams. Paige’s struggles are something that the team sees every four years or so when a freshman point guard is asked to learn the complex Carolina offense and defense, usually against some of the nation’s top teams.

“I still remember Phil Ford,” Williams said of the greatest point guard to wear Carolina blue in his weekly radio show two games into the season, “and I remember that headline was something like, 'This Ford has turned into an Edsel,' because he was so bad his first game. Ty Lawson, his freshman year, he had six (turnovers) in 18 minutes his second game. You just got to live through some of those things.”

But is this just part of the learning process?  Were the other great Carolina points of the recent past on a par with Paige? Under Larry Drew II, the 2010-11 Tar Heels started 4-3, dropping back-to-back games to Minnesota and Vanderbilt. Frasor and Lawson both had back-to-back ACC losses in their first season as starter.  

Paige is also showing signs of getting it. He had a turnover-free game with 9 assists against McNeese State. Then again, Marshall had 16 assists in his fifth career start. Frasor has 12 in his sixth. Lawson had 33 assists in a four-game stretch his first December at the helm.

Paige’s 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio is significantly lower than the other recent Carolina points had in their first 15 starts. Drew, at 1.8, was next worst. He also has the lowest shooting percentage by 30 points.

Using Jon Pence of scacchoops.com’s similarity scores, the start to Paige’s career is most comparable to Frasor and Drew. One got replaced as starter his sophomore year, and the other transferred. He’s least similar to Marshall, Lawson, and Felton. All three were drafted in the first round, and two led the Heels to titles.  

Williams gave Paige another vote of confidence this week, declaring on the weekly ACC coaches teleconference that Paige is his starter. “That position is not very unsettled,” he said

The boat is burned. The wagon’s hitched.

For better or worse.

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