CHAPEL HILL — People who watch Kendall Marshall play basketball talk a lot about his vision, and how good it is, but in reality it has become worse over the years. Marshall, the sophomore point guard at North Carolina, scratched his left eye when he was a baby, scratched it so badly it bled.
He suffered from light sensitivity throughout childhood, when he often would bury his chin into his chest to avoid the sunlight during rides in a car. His sensitivity to light has improved. His vision has not. He plays with one contact lens - in his left eye, and probably should be playing with one in the other, too.
"I went to the doctor to get new glasses, and he told me my right eye's gotten worse," Marshall said recently. "So I probably need to be getting contacts in that eye, too. But I'm trying to wait until after the season because I don't want to mess with it midseason."
As it has since Marshall emerged as the Tar Heels' starter during the middle of last season, his vision will play a key role at 9 tonight when No. 5 North Carolina (20-3, 7-1) hosts No. 10 Duke (19-4, 6-2) at the Smith Center. North Carolina coach Roy Williams has said Marshall possesses the best vision of any player he's ever coached.
And if you ask the greatest point guard in school history about Marshall, the first thing he'll say is this:
"What really stands out to me," Phil Ford said Tuesday, "is his vision."
Looking for the obvious play
Marshall hears this talk about his vision - from television commentators, from fans, from teammates, from past Tar Heels greats, from his own coach, even - and he sometimes wonders what they mean. His vision isn't perfect, yet vision is the one thing people talk about when describing Marshall.
"I guess I've thought about it more this year since people (have) stressed about, like, how I see the floor," Marshall said. "I don't know. I have no idea. The majority of the time when I'm out there, I feel like I'm making the obvious play."
There are multiple ways to quantify Marshall's vision. One is to watch the Tar Heels play, and count the number of times he makes the impossible pass possible.
He might penetrate the lane, draw a defender close and then leave the ground to wrap a pass around some big man's back. Marshall might throw a bounce pass three-quarters of the length of the court, through traffic, and hit his target in stride for a layup or a dunk.
"It's better than anyone I've ever played with," senior forward Tyler Zeller said of Marshall's vision. "It's something (where) you've got to be ready for the ball at any moment. I've seen him make passes when I'm not necessarily open, but he finds a way to get me open."
Another way to quantify Marshall's vision is through the assists records he has broken, or could break. Through 60 games, he is averaging a school-record 7.6 per game. Ford, Jeff Lebo, Ed Cota, Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson combined to play 600 games for North Carolina, and combined they had three games with at least 15 assists.
In 540 fewer games, Marshall already has had five such games.
Marshall shrugs at the way he has piled up assists. He says he is not paying attention to records - ones he has set or ones he might one day.
"My teammates do a great job of telling me where they want the ball, how they want the ball," he said. "You know, it's not hard to pass it in to John (Henson) and (Zeller). It's not hard to give it to Reggie (Bullock) and Harrison (Barnes) spotting up to shoot."
It is difficult, though, to explain Marshall's gift. When he was younger, about 8 or 9, Marshall's father, Dennis, had him at the gym for about two hours a day for six days a week.
They'd drive from home in Dumfries, Va., to the Chinn Center in Woodbridge, about 15 miles north, and there the younger Marshall would stay on the sidelines of the court, working on his dribbling. He worked on his passing, too, bouncing passes off a wall at different angles, and then passing to an imaginary target behind his back.
"I hated it," Marshall said of those workouts, many of which his father borrowed from some camps he attended. "But it made me the player that I am today."
It helped, anyway. Ford, whose 753 assists ranked first in school history when he left in 1978, has a theory about point guards. He believes some things can't be taught.
During his years as an assistant coach for the Tar Heels, Ford helped tutor Cota, the point guard who from 1996 through 2000 set the school record with 1,030 assists. There were some moments back then when Ford could see a pass Cota would make before he made it, and other times when Cota would make passes even Ford thought impossible.
Now Ford has the same feelings watching Marshall.
"I always thought that I could see things and see what was going on," Ford said. "But with Ed and with Kendall, sometimes they make passes and I go, 'Whew, I didn't see that one coming.' "
Teachable moments remain
Not that Marshall is perfect. During Saturday's 83-74 victory at Maryland, he drove the lane, went airborne and attempted a pass around a defender that bounced off Zeller's back and out of bounds.
During the 74-55 victory against N.C. State, he threw a lob off of a pick-and-roll to Henson. The pass landed somewhere in the first few rows of the crowd at the Smith Center.
"I think part of my gift - and also part of my curse - is I feel like there's no pass I can't complete," Marshall said. "And that gets me in trouble sometimes."
During the 83-60 victory Jan. 7 against Boston College, for instance, Marshall attempted an alley-oop to Barnes. The play failed, and Williams immediately benched Marshall. On the sideline, Williams and Marshall shared a one-sided conversation.
It was a teaching moment, though Williams acknowledged Tuesday there are some things he can't teach. Vision is one, he said.
"I think you can start talking at a young age to a guy about keeping his head up while he's dribbling the ball," Williams said. "You can talk to him about keeping his options open and knowing where guys are going. I think you can talk to him about seeing the defense."
"I don't think you can teach it," Williams said.
Marshall hears this talk about his vision, and he doesn't know quite what to make of it. As his eyesight has become worse over time, the only thing he notices off the court, he said, are what kinds of sneakers people might be wearing.
"I like sneakers a lot," he said. "I remember people by what shoes they have on. I feel like you can tell a lot about a person by his shoes, stuff like that. So as far as vision goes off the court, that's probably the main thing."
On the court, though, he sees much more. At least that's the way it seems to those who watch. To Marshall, it's nothing special. He wonders what all the fuss is about and why, for one of the few times, other people can see something he doesn't.