CHAPEL HILL — Ellis Paige grew up in Chicago, where he learned to play basketball and learned about the importance of confidence on city courts against players bigger, older and meaner.
Playing in Chicago, Paige said, “you don’t back down. You always feel like you’re the best.”
He has tried to instill that attitude into his son, Marcus, the freshman point guard at North Carolina.
“I said, ‘Hey man, you know what – the one thing that you don’t realize is every time you go out there you have to compete because everyone on that level is just as good as you are,’ ” the elder Paige said during a recent phone interview. “And that’s a hard thing for him to understand.
“When you’re so used to being awesome all the time, you’ve just got to compete.”
Paige arrived at UNC as one of the top point guard prospects in the nation. Indeed, he had long been “awesome” as a young player growing up in Iowa, where he learned the game from his father, a juvenile probation officer, and his mother, a high school English teacher who also coached the girls’ basketball team and Paige’s sister, Morgan, a junior guard at Wisconsin.
School came easily for Marcus Paige, who graduated from Linn-Mar High in Marion, Iowa, with a grade-point average that exceeded 4.0. Basketball came easily, too. Yet his first season at UNC has been full of challenges, learning experiences and obstacles.
On Saturday, when the Tar Heels play at N.C. State, Paige will compete head-to-head against Lorenzo Brown, the Wolfpack point guard who is among the nation’s best. It will be an opportunity both for Paige to prove himself, and to prove how far he has come since in the two months since he started his first college game.
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” UNC coach Roy Williams said recently of Paige’s incremental improvement. “That he’s just learning more and more about the college game and what we need him to do and what he needs to do – what he can do that he can be successful with, some things that he has to leave out that he hasn’t been successful with.”
Kendall Marshall’s departure instantly changed the dynamic of this UNC team. It changed Paige’s mental approach, too.
“I go from thinking hopefully I can provide this team with some quality minutes, to night in and night out, I have to be consistent and be a floor leader, and kind of orchestrate the offense,” Paige said. “I didn’t feel a bunch of pressure. I just saw a great opportunity.”
The pressure did come after a while, though. In Paige’s first game, a victory against Gardner-Webb, he had four turnovers and zero assists. He had five turnovers in a victory not long after against Long Beach State.
Some mistakes showed up in the box score. Other intangibles, such as confidence or adapting, were less noticeable.
Paige said the transition might have been more difficult than anticipated.
“In high school, you can get away with taking possessions off, or just coasting, just based on pure talent,” he said. “But here that doesn’t work. So that’s been the biggest challenge – just bringing it every single possession.”
Back in Iowa, Ellis Paige hasn’t worried much about his son and his development. The elder Paige said he has seen signs that make him believe success will come soon.
Those signs aren’t necessarily based on numbers. Statistically, Paige’s improvement has been difficult to measure. He has had six assists in each of UNC’s past two games, but he’s also made just two of his 13 shots in that span.
Yet the numbers tell only part of the story. Paige has appeared more comfortable on the court. He has led the Tar Heels’ in transition. He has tried, with some success, to pass ahead to jump start the offense – just like Marshall so often did.
Passing along PG tradition
Marshall was the most recent Tar Heels point guard that Paige studied. He grew up a UNC fan, and has been since the mid-to-late 1990s days of Ed Cota-to-Vince Carter.
Watching Cota helped inspire the 6-foot, 160-pound Paige – along with his natural size limitations – to become a point guard. He spent time watching Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, too.
The comparisons to Marshall have been inevitable, if only because Paige succeeded him. But their differences are obvious.
“Kendall had that unique skill set of being one of the best passers in the history of college basketball,” Paige said. “I mean, he was unreal – almost like a magician with the basketball. I think my skill set differs. Where I still like to get teammates the ball, at times I like to try to attack and create my own offense.”
It’s in that area, creating scoring opportunities for himself, where Paige has struggled the most. After some of his more difficult games, he said he has received encouraging text messages from Marshall.
Paige spent time during the summer with Lawson, Felton and Marshall, but he said Marshall has been the most instrumental to his development. They talked about the responsibilities of a point guard in Williams’ up-tempo offense, and Marshall has remained in touch, Paige said.
“He just helped me with what reads to look for in secondary [break],” Paige said. “… And then just telling me how important it was for a point guard to be a leader. Because other guys might have more experience than me on this team – everyone, I mean, I’m a freshman – but he said it’s still important for the guy that has the ball, the point guard, to be able to be a leader on the floor. So I took that to heart.”
Comfort level increasing
Ellis Paige traveled to Chapel Hill to watch his son’s first game, to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, and Indiana for the Tar Heels’ lopsided defeat at the then-No. 1 Hoosiers.
Indiana’s Assembly Hall was a long way from the gym where Ellis taught Marcus the fundamentals.
“The beauty of it is, the Carolina fans have not really seen his whole game,” the elder Paige said. “And I’m not just being a dad – they haven’t seen his whole game until shots start falling and decision-making becomes more comfortable.”
As time passes, though, Paige is becoming more comfortable. Williams recently said he couldn’t identify the one aspect in which Paige has improved the most, or the one in which he most needs to improve.
He said he wanted Paige to get better in all aspects, yet Williams cited Paige’s hustle play toward the end of a victory at Florida State as perhaps the most important play of that game. After a UNC turnover, Paige raced back and helped force a Florida State turnover that helped the Heels maintain control.
“There’s no stat for that,” Williams said.
Nor is there one, necessarily, that measures how much Paige’s confidence has grown. Two months into his college career, that’s where Paige believes he has most improved.
He said last week that he felt “right on the edge of turning the corner to playing the way I want to play.” The mistakes are still there, but so is a renewed sense of belief.
“Getting thrown into the fire at the beginning of the year – you’re just not quite as confident doing things on the court that are usually second nature,” Paige said. “So everything is becoming more comfortable for me.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter