I wrote a story that ran today about Marcus Paige, the North Carolina sophomore guard. It’s a story about his development and his emergence this season – about how he surpassed everyone’s expectations, even those of his father.
Paige earned the ACC’s Most Improved Player award, and it’s difficult to think of another player who showed more improvement under more dire circumstances. Everything changed for the Tar Heels when they went through the P.J. Hairston ordeal. Then everything changed again when they learned Hairston was gone for good.
Paige went from expecting to play a supporting role to needing to play a leading role. I liked the way his dad put it during our talk earlier this week. Ellis Paige said, “When P.J. exited, Marcus truly thought, I’m going to hold this bad boy down until P.J. comes back. When PJ didn’t come back, I was like, OK – he continued that and I was like ‘Wow.’ Marcus isn’t playing around this year.”
Paige and I recently spoke about a variety of topics. The interview:
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Andrew Carter: Seems you really enjoy the mental side of the game – the Xs and Os and strategy. Where’s that appreciation come from?
Marcus Paige: I’ve always liked that side of the game. I’ve never been vocal before up until at the end of last year, and this year. But I’ve always kind of enjoyed the basketball philosophy part of the game, like the Xs and Os just listening to different (analysts) – College GameDay, when they talk about stuff. What coach (Hubert) Davis used to do. That kind of stuff interests me, and listening to analysts break down what NBA players do stuff well. It’s just cool because you want to be like them so you’re just listening, hearing different things. But I never really thought that I would be the person that would get on people on the court or speak a lot on the court, because I never did that up until recently. But I guess it’s just kind of happened that way.
AC: You sound like an analyst with us after games, during interviews. Are you like that all the time?
MP: Yeah. (Laughs.) I’ve started to do it a lot more in the past couple of years. My teammates always give me a hard time about it, because I’m always like overanalyzing stuff. And me and Denzel (Robinson) – you know, coach Rob’s son – we get into those sort of talks and debates all the time, just because we’re the two that never shut up about basketball. And we always think we’re right. So we get into analyzing every little thing. But I don’t know – I’ve always enjoyed that part of the game. Being a point guard, I guess, helped – always watching guys like Jason Kidd and stuff. And then you hear about different players and stuff. It’s just fun to think the game. And I guess because my mom’s a coach. My dad coached a little bit in high school. I’ve kind of been around it.
AC: Given your appreciation for the mental part of the game, and your position, do you think of yourself as an extension of Roy Williams?
MP: Yeah, especially this year I see myself doing that. Just because I’m not a freshman anymore. And I’m pretty confident that I know exactly what coach wants, whereas last year I was still trying to figure that out. So that was tough. But now that I know the system, I know what he wants – I can kind of tell what plays he’s going to call or what defense he’s going to call in certain situations. So then I try to just be that on the court. And coach has appreciated that and as long as I keep listening to him, he likes the fact that I do that. So this year especially, I’ve really tried to do that, and it’s been in my mind – it’s not just something that happens naturally.
AC: When you’re on the court, how much of what the team is doing comes straight from the bench and how much of it is improvised?
MP: We don’t call a whole lot of plays during the game. Out of bounds stuff we always call – or coach always calls, but most of the offense that we run during the game is just players reacting and just playing basketball. Every once in a while, he’ll call a set or he’ll just tell me to run a set and I’ll try to maybe get Leslie a shot, or get James Michael to the block. But usually it’s just kind of playing basketball. And then obviously if we’re at the free throw line, we’ll make a couple of calls for the next couple of possessions. But usually it’s just play.
AC: When you’re just playing, then, how much are you leading that and making sure guys are on the same page?
MP: Well at this point in the year, a lot of us are on the same page. We know where guys like to catch the ball, and like to shoot from. But early in the year, I tried to be more of the guy that was directing traffic, just because we were young, inexperienced. And we just kind of needed that. But now I feel like it’s just more five guys understanding each other better, but at the same time if a team goes on a run – like (against) Notre Dame – (they) went on a pretty big run and almost evened the score up. So I just called a box play that everyone knows, everyone’s ran a million times, just to get guys to relax and try to get a good shot.
AC: Where have you come farther this season: mentally or physically?
MP: I think mentally, honestly. Just because as a point guard learning this system, it’s tough. You know, that first year, they talk about it all the time. They said Raymond struggled. Ty struggled. Like those guys are in the NBA, making millions of dollars, and they struggled with this. So once you get over that hump, you can just kind of relax and play basketball, and I think that’s been big for me. And then confidence-wise, that counts as mentally, too. So my confidence is on a whole other level right now, too.
AC: People have talked about how difficult this offense is for a point guard and yet it looks easy at times – what is it early on that makes it so difficult to learn for a point guard?
MP: Well, part of it is coach wants to play so fast. But he always says, ‘Be patient,’ too. It’s almost like you have like conflicting philosophies getting thrown into one thing. But when it works it looks great. But this year and last year, we haven’t played as fast as some of his other teams, just because we haven’t had the offensive firepower. But still learning that we don’t have to force things in the first five seconds of the shot clock and stuff – that’s hard. Because he’s yelling, ‘Go, go, go,’ and then you speed up and you turn the ball over, instead of just playing basketball the way you’re used to playing. So it’s tough.
AC: When did it really start to click for you – was it the end of last year, the summer, or the start of this season?
MP: No, I think last five or six games of ACC play, and then going into the tournament, the NCAA tournament, is when I really felt comfortable. I knew my role. I didn’t try to do too much. I just passed to Reggie (Bullock) and P.J. (Hairston) on the wing. (Laughs.) Let them shoot threes. But honestly, I just knew my role. And I started making shots, which helped my confidence, obviously. But I didn’t try to do too much, and just kind of ran the system the way he wanted it to. Because we had guys who could score, and I didn’t really have to do much other than distribute the ball. So that was when I started playing more confidently, is at the very end.
AC: Confidence can be a weird thing. How much did the start of this season help you with that?
MP: Yeah, I think the beginning of this year helped. Because I started off shooting above 50 percent from 3, above 50 percent from the floor. So those kinds of stats – and we won some big games. I know we lost some, too. But those big games tend to resonate more than some of the bad losses we had. But that moment we win the little championship at Mohegan Sun, that was a big confidence booster for me, and kind of helped me realize that I’ve arrived, and I can just play my game almost the way I played in high school. I’m a capable scorer at this level. So that really helped me for the rest of the year, honestly. Even now.
AC: When all the stuff with P.J. happened, did anyone have a conversation with you about needing to increase the offense or did that thought come naturally to you?
MP: Yeah, I mean coach (C.B.) McGrath talked to me about it a little bit. He always used to tell me to shoot more last year, too, but he was the coach that recruited me, and I have a really good relationship with him. He told me I would have to be more aggressive. I make good decisions enough to where I don’t take bad shots for the most part. So if I’m shooting the ball, even if I miss, we’ll have guys in rebounding position and we’ll have our defensive balance as well. So me taking shots is a good thing for the team, and then as soon as I started to realize that, maybe me taking a shot, even if I miss, we’ve got our best rebounders on the glass instead of someone else shooting and me trying to get the rebound. So once I realize that the team needs me to take shots and people are telling me to shoot, I mean I had to start shooting more.
AC: It’s easy to think about how guys work on the physical aspect of their games. How do you work on the mental part?
MP: You just – you’ve got to keep an open mind. That’s the biggest thing. Some guys, when they have some success or they think they’ve gotten to the point where they’re not as coachable – you know, like, ‘I know what I’m doing, I know I should have done this, whatever,’ and they close their mind off to feedback, whereas if you stay open you can learn anything from anybody. You can just take that for what it’s worth, even if it’s bad information you still listen to it and then you can disregard it. But I just try to watch film. Synergy is a big tool that coaches use, and we have it up in the coaches office. I watch it sometimes just if I played bad or had a bunch of turnovers, I can see where I got myself into trouble and stuff like that. So just never being satisfied with how you play is the biggest thing, so you don’t close yourself off to coaching.
AC: You’re obviously open to coaching. What’s your relationship like with coach Williams? It seems like a closer coach-player relationship than most?
MP: Yeah, he’s great. He actually called me when he went recruiting just to see how I was doing after the Notre Dame game. Because he knew I was upset that I missed some free throws down the stretch and stuff. But he’s someone that –talk about confidence. Like if there’s one person that’s given me confidence in my life, it’s definitely him. When I was struggling last year, he talked to me all the time and said he had my back, and there’s still no one in the world he would trade for me, and things like that. When you hear those things from your coach it means a lot. Especially when I was playing as mediocre as I was playing at the beginning of last year. He’s just done a great job of managing my stamina. He’s always asking me if I needed rest. Just – we have a relationship I think that’s a little bit different than maybe him and everybody else on the team.
AC: With the P.J. stuff – do you wonder how things would have gone if he’d been here? How that would have affected your role?
MP: Yeah, my individual numbers would look a lot different if P.J. was here. Just because he’s such a dynamic player. And he’s doing great in the d-league. And he’s going to be a good pro. So I’m happy for him. But it is – it’s weird to know the season could have been a lot different. No one knows how different, or for good or for worse. But I guess the fact that we’ve handled it as well as we have, and getting Leslie (McDonald) back and now winning 12, 13 games in a row – that shows a lot of growth in this team and in myself as being a leader, too. So I’m glad he’s doing well and I’m also glad that we were able to find our identity as a team and move on from that.
AC: Getting back to Roy – I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you had his job. How much thought have you given to becoming a coach?
MP: You never know. I never wanted to be a coach growing up, or even thought I would be. But like I told you the other day, more and more I guess as I’m getting older, I’m realizing that it’d be kind of fun and maybe that fits me and my personality. I don’t know. I guess I’ve got time.