A rare dunk for UNC’s Marcus Paige signals improved health, new approach

North Carolinas North Carolinas Marcus Paige (5) dunks over Clemson’s Gabe Devoe (10) and Landry Nnoko (35) in the second half to secure the Tar Heels 80-69 victory on Wednesday, December 30, 2015 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolinas North Carolinas Marcus Paige (5) dunks over Clemson’s Gabe Devoe (10) and Landry Nnoko (35) in the second half to secure the Tar Heels 80-69 victory on Wednesday, December 30, 2015 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Sometimes it happens during warmups or during North Carolina shoot-arounds or when “we’re just goofing around,” Isaiah Hicks, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, said recently.

But it doesn’t happen all that often. Marcus Paige, UNC’s 6-foot-2 senior guard, rarely dunks. And so there was reason to celebrate the moment when he did it on Wednesday in the final moments of the Tar Heels’ 80-69 victory against Clemson.

With less than two minutes remaining in the game, and with victory appearing certain for UNC, Paige finished a possession with a two-handed slam. He pulled himself up on the rim a little bit and then let go, returned to the court and left the basket shaking.

The crowd at the Smith Center appreciated the moment. So, too, did Paige’s teammates, who have seen him dunk in lighter moments in practices or before games, but not so often during them.

“If you (saw) my reaction,” Hicks said, “I was just jumping up and down. I was surprised.”

Paige’s dunk was his third at UNC. The other two came during his sophomore season: one in a victory at Georgia Tech and the other in November 2013 in a victory against Louisville at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut.

Last season, amid nagging injuries and the painful plantar fasciitis that limited Paige’s mobility, he didn’t have much of an opportunity to finish plays above the rim. Paige on Wednesday said with a laugh that he “couldn’t even touch the backboard last year.”

He is back to his old self this season, though, and it’s a welcome sight for UNC, which on Saturday plays Georgia Tech at the Smith Center. Paige, who recently endured another injury scare when he jammed his right ankle in a victory against Appalachian State, has his athleticism back, and it has allowed him to penetrate more effectively and finish plays at the basket.

The dunk at the end of the victory against Clemson was one example. There was another in the first half when Paige, after a defensive rebound, drove the length of the court, penetrated the right side of the lane and, while absorbing a foul, threw a shot high off the backboard. It fell through the rim, and Paige made a foul shot, completing a 3-point play he might not have made a season ago.

“I kind of lost my balance,” Paige said. “I was going to try to draw contact, and then I kind of like buckled a little bit, so I just wanted to get it on the backboard. You ask a lot of scorers and stuff, and they get fouled, and the first thing you try to do is if you know you’re going to get contact is get the ball on the (back)board, because you never know when you’re going to get a 3-point play.”

Paige never knows, too, when an opportunity to dunk might present itself. So when such a chance materializes, he said, “You can’t pass it up.”

Which led to his moment late in the victory against Clemson. After Hicks rebounded a Clemson miss, he set Paige up with his chance. Paige took advantage and punctuated his dunk with a slight pull-up on the rim. He thought quickly that he better let go of it.

“I was like, I better get off the rim before I get a (technical foul) and coach loses his mind,” Paige said. “It’ll be the last time I ever touch the rim. … But you know, guys that don’t get a lot of dunks don’t know how to act when they get a dunk.

“And it’s funny because Brice dunks more than anyone and sometimes it looks like he doesn’t know how to act, like he’s never dunked a ball before. But now I know how it feels – I had so much energy running through me, I was about to start flexing and do my best Brice Johnson impression.”

There was no flexing for Paige. Just that natural high and energy that comes amid doing something that only a select portion of the population can do: dunk a basketball on a 10-foot goal.

It was a moment, too, that reflected Paige’s increased emphasis on finishing plays closer to the basket. Last season, 238 of Paige’s 416 attempts from the field – 57.2 percent – came on 3-pointers. The season before that, in Paige’s sophomore year, 50.9 percent of his shot attempts were 3-pointers.

Paige said Hubert Davis, one of UNC’s assistant coaches, has reminded Paige that the majority of his field goal attempts have been from behind the 3-point line. Reducing the percentage of 3-pointers, relative to the shots he attempts inside the 3-point line, has been a priority for Paige.

So far this season, exactly half – 40 out of 80 – of Paige’s field-goal attempts have been on 3s.

“I want to keep that down to where less than half of my attempts are from 3,” Paige said. “So I’ve been attacking the basket more. I feel good, so I can get in the paint a lot more often, and I think that’s helped my efficiency.”

It hasn’t been bad for the highlight reel, either.