UNC Basketball: How Marcus Paige Stacks Up vs. 2014-15 Wooden Award Candidates
UNC basketball has one of the country’s most exciting returning players in point guard Marcus Paige. The rising junior floor general is coming off of a brilliant 2013-14 campaign in which he averaged 17.4 points and 4.3 assists per game, making him a prime contender for next year’s Wooden Award.
Not only is Paige poised to put up huge individual numbers again, but his Tar Heels team—which brought in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes—is also a bona fide Final Four threat. Great players on national contenders are what the Player of the Year voters are looking for, but Paige has no monopoly on that status entering the year.
Herein is a look at five of the other leading candidates to capture Wooden Award recognition in 2014-15, with an eye to evaluating Paige’s chances of outperforming each of them and taking home the hardware for himself.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
A sensational NCAA tournament put Frank Kaminsky on the national radar, but the Wisconsin center had already established himself as the leader of a hyperefficient offense in the regular season.
With four starters returning from the Badgers’ Final Four squad, he’s now leading a team that's a decisive Big Ten favorite, too.
With a less top-heavy conference than the ACC to battle, Kaminsky will almost certainly have the edge on Paige when it comes to team performance, and both are prolific scorers.
However, while the big man is a fine shot-blocker, his iffy rebounding will hurt him with Wooden Award voters. Paige (a productive defender himself) will have no trouble getting an edge by piling up impressive assist totals.
Trey Lyles, Kentucky
Kentucky is the preseason favorite for the national title, hands down, and the Wildcats have plenty of legitimate Wooden Award prospects to choose from.
Freshman Trey Lyles is the best of the lot, a high-scoring power forward stepping into the starting job left vacant by last season’s top ‘Cat, Julius Randle.
Although Lyles is the clear favorite to put his team atop the national rankings by season’s end, his individual numbers will be reined in by Kentucky’s unmatched depth.
He’s also a true freshman, and any learning curve he faces will add to the advantage Paige gains from being a third-year starter.
Myles Turner, Texas
There isn’t another player in the country who can match the scoring potential of Texas freshman Myles Turner.
The 7’0” wunderkind is a substantial low-post weapon (on defense as well as offense) who can also knock down jump shots with range to the three-point line.
That said, Turner’s relatively recent ascension in the recruiting rankings suggests he might be following an arc similar to that of ex-Kansas center Joel Embiid, who didn’t start dominating until late in the 2013-14 season.
Paige, in contrast, will be ready to hit the ground running in an experienced lineup. His Tar Heels should also be at least the equals of the (admittedly talented) Longhorns in terms of contending, both in conference and on a national level.
Brandon Ashley, Arizona
Like Kentucky, Arizona boasts a lineup so deep that it’s hard to pick a clear Wooden Award front-runner from within the roster.
Brandon Ashley, who showed impressive inside-outside scoring ability before injuring his foot last season, gets the nod here (barely) over explosive but raw freshman Stanley Johnson.
Ashley will be an outstanding offensive weapon on a heavy Pac-12 title favorite. However, his scoring numbers are unlikely to match what Paige can put up in the faster-paced UNC attack.
The big man is also in a bad position for making a splash on the glass—he’s competing with too many other terrific rebounders on his own team—meaning that Paige’s passing ability will give him another boost.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Jabari Parker has gone to the NBA, but another Duke freshman is ready to step in and challenge for Wooden Award honors from his first day on Tobacco Road.
Jahlil Okafor is a 6’10”, 265-pound behemoth with outstanding offensive skills and mobility. If he doesn’t have Parker’s perimeter game, he makes up for it with his physicality and low-post experience.
Okafor will have a young but talent-laden lineup around him, meaning his Blue Devils will be among the toughest obstacles to an ACC title for Paige and North Carolina.
The individual-stats battle will likely be a wash between the two stars, making their two head-to-head meetings (and relative place in the standings) vital to giving one or the other an edge in the POY voting.
On top of all of the other bragging rights at stake, this year’s Duke-North Carolina rivalry is a good bet to eliminate one Player of the Year finalist.
If either the Tar Heels or Blue Devils win the ACC crown, the runners-up are unlikely to see their representative take home the Player of the Year hardware.
That said, a conference title isn’t a guarantee that Marcus Paige will be the Wooden winner, especially if Kentucky or Wisconsin posts an especially gaudy overall record.
However, if Paige comes through as the floor leader of a No. 1 seed, the fifth Wooden Award in UNC history will be his for the taking in the NCAA tournament.