CHAPEL HILL — Marcus Paige now understands things he didn’t understand last year around this time, when it was still early in his freshman year at North Carolina. He understands what is expected of a Tar Heels’ point guard, and understands what coach Roy Williams wants.
Paige thought he understood those things last year. But how could he?
“Marcus is so much more confident,” Williams said recently.
It’s not difficult to understand why. A year ago, Paige arrived at UNC weighing around 155 pounds – so light that he described his weight at one point this summer as “ridiculous.” He arrived, too, with the heavy burden of replacing Kendall Marshall, who rewrote UNC’s assist records before leaving school in 2012 after his sophomore season.
Williams describes Paige as one of the smartest players he has ever coached. Yet intelligence can only go so far. Paige struggled early last season. There was the difficult performance at N.C. State, where in a defeat he couldn’t keep up with Lorenzo Brown, the Wolfpack point guard. Earlier than that, there was a game against Butler in Maui.
“I remember in Hawaii, I felt like I was going to pass out,” Paige said. “Because Butler played such a physical style of basketball that wore on me earlier in the year, and then it got better as I got used to it toward ACC play, the second half of ACC play, in the tournament.
“I was used to it, and I learned how to compensate for that in different ways.”
By the end of last season, Paige was a different player. He was more comfortable running the offense. He was a better scorer.
He finished with averages of 8.2 points and 4.6 assists – somewhat modest numbers that belied the arc of his season, and his journey from winded and unsure in Maui to a confident leader in March. By the NCAA tournament, Paige was among the Tar Heels’ most reliable players.
Now, though, the expectations are higher. Paige has gone through his first season of ups and downs, and he completed his first offseason of strength and conditioning work, too. Though it might not show, he gained about 15 pounds.
Describing his weight gain recently, Paige remembered UNC’s game at Virginia, where Jontel Evans drove into the lane and simply had his way against Paige, who described the encounter as “just a grown man (against) a little kid.”
“But I’m a lot stronger,” Paige said. “I’ve got a stronger base now. I played last year at 160. And now I’m between 172 and 175. So that was a good stride to me. I’m still not the biggest guy, and Jontel Evans is huge. He’s like 205. He’s a grown man. …
“(But) it’s going to make a difference, being able to take contact, be more physical, especially on the defensive end.”
Offensively, Paige focused in the offseason on improving his shooting mechanics – going more straight up and down and finding a consistent release point. His shot didn’t look bad last season, aesthetically, but he made just 34.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. That included a hot streak when he made 8 of his 17 during UNC’s final four games.
“The second half of the season, he made a bunch of big-time shots,” Williams said. “First part of the season, he led the country in in-and-outs. Not In and Out burger – but the ball goes in and comes back out kind of thing.
“But I do believe that he’s a very, very good shooter.”
Paige tried to hone that aspect of his game, and others, during the usual summer pickup games against former UNC players. A lot of times, Paige found himself guarding Raymond Felton, and then going against him on offense.
Like always, Paige said, “the games get pretty intense.”
“The young guys got something to prove, and the old guys don’t want to let go, you know,” Paige said. “They never want to lose and let go of the court.”
Going against a bigger, more physical guard like Felton is something Paige hopes will help. Just a season ago, months of unknowns awaited Paige: How would he handle his first adversity? How would his lack of bulk affect him? How would he fare running Williams’ offense?
He has answers to those questions now, and experience. He has something else, too: the confidence that this is his team.
“I expected myself to be a leader this year regardless of (personnel) losses and doghouse problems with P.J. (Hairston), Leslie (McDonald), whatever,” Paige said. “Because I’m a point guard and I feel (leadership) is my responsibility. That’s just how my personality is.
“But I guess it’s just made more explicit now, that I’m the leader of this team.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter