At least once in every North Carolina practice so far, Roy Williams has turned to his team and pointed at junior guard Marcus Paige.
“This is our best player,” Williams said he told the group. “Don’t anybody forget that.”
The Tar Heels probably don’t need the reminder. Nor should anyone else. A first-team all-ACC pick who led the Tar Heels in scoring and assists last season, Paige goes into this season a national player-of-the-year candidate on a team with national-championship aspirations.
Still, no one – not Williams, not Paige – knows exactly what his role will be this season, only that it will be different. Exclusively a point guard as a freshman, Paige moved over to shooting guard at times last season to let Nate Britt play the point. This year, a third point guard, freshman Joel Berry joins the mix.
Meanwhile, Paige should have more weapons at his disposal, from freshmen wings Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson to an improved Kennedy Meeks and perhaps Brice Johnson or Isaiah Hicks as well. He may need to be less of a scorer, more of a distributor than he was asked to be last season.
“I anticipate playing on the ball and off the ball a lot, a lot of minutes each way,” Paige said Wednesday. “I’m not too worried about it.”
That Paige will be one of the best players in the ACC is beyond doubt. How he handles all of this change remains an open question, because he is far and away North Carolina’s most pivotal player.
Duke will depend heavily on two star freshmen, forward Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones. N.C. State is counting on transfer Trevor Lacey to help replace T.J. Warren. But no player is more important to his team than Paige, and no one faces a bigger challenge this season.
Paige, who at age 21 talks, thinks and plays like a coach, handles just about everything well. This will be out of his comfort zone, though, with some new responsibilities and new teammates who will need to see plenty of the ball, Jackson in particular if his sensational Late Night with Roy performance was anything to go by.
The biggest adjustment may be how much he has the ball in his hands. Williams said he hadn’t yet tried putting his three point guards on the floor at the same time, but he will. As Paige and Britt were both told long before they arrived on campus, Williams went to the Final Four in 2002 with Kansas starting Jeff Boschee, Kirk Heinrich and Aaron Miles.
“I’ve heard that story like a million times, from being recruited and being around him,” Paige said. “But that’s definitely a possibility this year. We’re going to have to find minutes for Joel and Nate, because they’re too good to keep off the floor, and obviously I want to be on the floor.”
That’s going to put Paige in some new roles, on the wing instead of at the point, guarding bigger players. Paige is listed at 175 pounds – up from 157 pounds as a freshman – but size is not chief amonghis virtues.
Still, this much is certain: When it really matters, Paige, and only Paige, will be the Tar Heels’ focus.
“When decisions that have to made that are going to determine the outcome of a game, Marcus is going to be heavily involved,” Williams said. “Whether that’s with the ball in his hand to make the play or make the pass or make the shot or whatever, I don’t know yet. But he’s going to be involved in doing that.”