July 11, 2014

UNC guard Marcus Paige on his return, spending more time at shooting guard and being more comfortable

Paige, who will enter his junior season surrounded by grand expectations, believes the Tar Heels are "legitimate" Final Four contenders.

North Carolina has been hosting summer interviews with its returning basketball players in recent weeks, and on Thursday us media hacks had a chance to spend some time with Marcus Paige, who will enter his junior season with no shortage of expectations and attention.

Paige spent more than 20 minutes answering our questions – and answering them well, as is the usual with him – and so he spoke about a variety of things. He said he’s working on becoming a more versatile offensive player and extending his shooting range, and that he’s more “at ease” entering his junior season.

Makes sense. He’s been around for a while now.

Here’s what I considered to be the five most interesting questions (paraphrased below, for space and clarity) he answered on Thursday:

Question: A lot of college players nowadays are in such a hurry to reach the next level. You immediately decided to come back for your junior season. What went into that decision?

Answer: That’s always a hard decision, because there’s obviously benefits to both things. There’s so many factors that go into it. But for me, the vast majority of those pushed me to stay in college. Physically maturing. Wanting to be a little bit more successful down in March and April, trying to hang a banner, win more. And also just I think I enjoy my teammates a lot. And everything just made sense for me to come back. We’ve got basically everybody back for another run. So it made sense for me to come back.

Q: Last year you had to play shooting guard out of necessity. What are your thoughts on spending more time there this season and playing more off the ball?

A: I’m a guard, so I have no problem doing either one. Obviously, a point guard is what I am and what I will be moving forward. But with the talent we have on our roster, especially at my position, it’s going to benefit us if I’m able to play off the ball for stretches like I did last year. Because Joel and Nate are too good not to have on the floor. So I have no problem doing that and I think that gives us flexibility, whereas last year we almost had to have a lineup where I was the two a lot of the year. This year we have that option if they have a certain matchup that we think we can exploit with multiple small guys on the court, we’ll be able to do that and obviously we’ll be able to go bigger with the addition of Justin and Theo as our wings, too, if we want one true point guard and two true wings. So that flexibility helps us and I’m not going to let my preference to play point guard get in the way of that.

Q: If you’re at point guard the majority of the time, who’s the go-two guy at shooting guard?

A: That’s a good question. That is a good question. We’ve had two practices this summer and coach has switched the lineups up both times. I think it’s pretty open. Obviously, Justin (Jackson) and Theo (Pinson) both bring different things to the table, but I would say it’s between those two if I’m starting at the one. And J.P. (Tokoto) has pretty much established himself as our three man, or our wing – our wings our interchangeable in our lineup. I guess – that’s going to be an interesting development as we get to take our trip down the Bamahas and practice early in the season I guess I could give you a better idea. But both of them are really good and I don’t know – I don’t know yet.

Q: How stressful was it for you last year, being thrust into a role you might not have been prepared for?

A: There were some things that happened last year in the offseason that obviously shook up our team a little bit – a lot of bit – and just kind of changed the whole dynamic of leadership, of scoring options, of all that stuff. So this year we haven’t had any of that. Our roster has been set. Everybody’s good to go. So it’s been a lot more relaxing from that standpoint I’m more at ease with what’s going on, I guess. I’m a year older and wiser now. So it feels good.

Q: How good can this UNC team be this season?

A: I think we can be as good as any team. Obviously it’s early. It’s July. But from what I see what I know about other teams, I don’t think there’s any team that I’m looking at like, oh, we can’t beat them or we don’t have the talent to match up with him. We definitely have our fair share of tests with our schedule. But I think that will help us out and I really think that we are a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all the pieces together.

Some quick thoughts:

--Will be interesting to see how UNC’s starting backcourt develops – and what it winds up being. Paige’s preference, as he said, would be to start at point guard. So who, then, starts at shooting guard? Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, a pair of freshmen, seem to be the only options there, and Paige, in his answer above, seems to like Jackson’s game a lot. Jackson is bigger. He’s 6-foot-7, and there are questions about whether he could effectively defend smaller guards. Of course, his athleticism could give him an advantage against smaller players. The most experienced backcourt combination would be the one we saw a lot of last season: Nate Britt at point guard and Paige at shooting guard. Paige will again play the two, but does he start there? Doesn’t seem to be his preference.

--One question I didn’t include above, but worth mentioning, was about how Paige could have a better season this year but not necessarily have that reflected in his numbers. “Oh, that’s very possible,” he said. Paige is expecting UNC to be a more balanced offensive team this season. He’s expecting more production out of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto, and Paige is expecting to have to take fewer difficult shots – the kind he was often forced to take a season ago given UNC’s limitations on offense.

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