Depth a strong point for UNC basketball
Depth — it left in the middle of the night two years ago, in February, when Larry Drew II decided he would transfer.
The North Carolina point guard position has been a one-man show ever since.
Kendall Marshall took the reins from Drew as a freshman and played nearly every minute of every contest until the NBA draft came calling in 2012. Then, in Marshall’s absence, freshman Marcus Paige started last season under colossal expectations, forced to lead a young and inexperienced team.
But this season, for the first time in a few years, a UNC point guard won’t be going at it alone.
The Tar Heels bring in left-handed recruit Nate Britt from Upper Marlboro, Md., who will be able to play alongside Paige and benefit from the sophomore’s tutelage.
“It’s gonna be great,” Paige said. “He’s gonna get the chance to play right away, and he’s going to have someone like me to learn from in tough situations, whereas last year me and Luke (Davis) were the only point guards on the roster, so I was stuck in a tough spot where I didn’t have anyone to learn from.”
UNC has toyed around with a two-point-guard lineup during the practice season, and it’s something that Paige and coach Roy Williams said will more than likely find its way into games. That could especially be the case early on in the year as P.J. Hairston misses time with a still undetermined suspension.
In practice, Britt has played the point, Paige has slid over to shooting guard and — depending on if UNC wants to go big or small — guard Leslie McDonald or forward James Michael McAdoo has played the three.
“I actually love the two-point-guard lineup,” Paige said. “Whoever gets the outlet just goes. The other one fills in on the wing. Nate’s really fast and pushes the ball well. It opens the game up for me a lot, too.”
For that backcourt configuration to succeed, however, Paige will likely need to shoot better than his 35.6 percent clip from a year ago. Paige’s teammates encouraged him to take a more selfish approach throughout last season, and Paige said assistant coach Hubert Davis gets mad at him when he doesn’t look to score while playing the two.
“Marcus, I thought last year, you heard me say 50 times, ‘He’s really a big-time shooter,’ and yet the numbers didn’t show that,” Williams said. “I think Marcus’ numbers will show a heck of lot more for us this year.”
As a whole, Paige is a stronger, wiser player than he was a year ago, having grown from a season in which he had to learn on the job.
Williams has called Paige a “tough little nut” on multiple occasions.
Paige went from admittedly tiring at the end of games early in the season to thriving at the end of them, leading late rallies in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. He’s packed on about 15 pounds since the beginning of last year through his work with trainer Jonas Sahratian, weighing as much as 175 pounds.
“He looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger right now compared to what he looked like last year,” Williams joked.
Though still an underclassman, Paige said he looks at himself as a leader — it’s inherent in the point guard position and within his personality. Along with McAdoo, Paige has been named a team captain, and he’s looking to use his experience from a season ago to guide not just Britt but his entire team.
“Having a whole year under your belt, it changes everything,” Paige said. “Now I know exactly what to expect for practice and exactly what to expect in the first game. I’ll know exactly what to expect when the first ACC game comes around. So just that part makes you more confident knowing you’ve already been through it.”
This year, though, he won’t have to go through it alone.