CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- The individual awards have mounted with each passing season for Marcus Paige. After a breakout All-America season in 2013-14, the senior combo guard earned All-ACC honors last year despite battling injuries for the majority of conference play. Paige averaged a team-high 14.1 points per game, including 16.3 per outing in the postseason, and also led the Tar Heels in 3-pointers (94), assists (170) and steals (65), all of which were career highs. In doing so, Paige became the 17th player to win the program’s Most Valuable Player award at least twice and only the fourth in the last 47 years to earn defensive player of the year honors three times.
There are more statistics of a similar nature available, such as Paige needing only 12 3-pointers to become UNC’s career leader, but those individual achievements are not what brought the Marion, Iowa native back to school the past two seasons despite opportunities to test the NBA waters. Following UNC’s Sweet 16 loss to Wisconsin last March, Paige spent the majority of his postgame interview talking about areas for improvement for the team with numerous references to next season.
Next season has arrived. Paige, who suffered with plantar fasciitis during the season and had surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle in April, is back to full health and ready to make one final postseason run. There are no more do-overs available. Fortunately for Paige, his supporting cast appears to be up for the challenge.
By Eric Montross
The common storyline with Marcus has not changed. It's all about his health. Marcus has the uncanny ability to have absolute brilliant play, but he was hampered by injury last year. When you can't trust your next step to be pain-free, it's always in the back of your mind that you might get hurt again. Will you, as a player, resist making a move because of that back-of-your-mind awareness?
Marcus is healthy, and he will continue to be the center of attention for every opponent the Tar Heels face this season. It is tough to succeed when you are the only consistent scoring threat on the team, as he was as a junior. I believe the big key for him is going to be the balance of the rest of the team this year, something that wasn't there last season. You can be great on your own, but you can be outstanding if you're playing on a balanced team. I believe Marcus can always have a higher shooting percentage - that's true of any player, and there is always a demand for that.
You force the defense to give you a secondary option to drive the ball to the rim when they guard you more closely on the perimeter. So I think that's the real challenge for him as senior, to continue to grow. He plays with an incredible level of enthusiasm and tenacity, and he leads by example as well as he does anything else. The other guys on the team rally behind him, and very rarely do you see a great leader who sits on the bench. As a team leader, you have to show you're tough, that you can score, that you can play great defense, that you embrace your teammates, and that you are willing to lead the charge. Marcus has played through injury and had great performances. I can't wait to see what he does now that's he's fully healthy.
By Rob Harrington
Paige already has constructed a storied career and seeks to punctuate his Carolina experience with a deep NCAA Tournament run. He spent most of last season suffering with foot problems and refusing to make excuses for relatively disappointing play, but by the end of the year he’d become healthy and begun to showcase the form that made him the preseason ACC player of the year. The southpaw has been in every pressure situation, delivered time and again, and will have a firmer grasp on his role — which was more variable and unpredictable a season ago — in 2015-16. Paige could transition from star player into a member of Carolina lore.
Xs & Os INSIDER
By Tyler Brooks
Paige can focus on filling the role of a true perimeter scorer as his minutes off the ball will likely increase. He will have the freedom in UNC’s freelance half-court offense to find shooting windows and driving lanes off the catch. He’ll greatly enhance the value of Carolina’s Box formation in comparison to last season, as he can provide much-needed shooting ability as the designated high cutter (and initial screener) on the second hit in the progression of the series. Carolina will still occasionally need him to have the ball in his hands, particularly to run “Fist” at the end of a half-court possession where he can create with the help of a ball screen.
By Adrian Atkinson
Paige is a proven commodity as a shooter and scorer. He’s poised to shatter Carolina’s record for career 3-pointers made (he has 225; Shammond Williams’s 233 is the UNC record), while also threatening to break the single-season mark (also held by Williams, who hit 95 in 1997; Paige knocked down 94 last season). Having made 86.5% of his career free throws, Paige figures to leave Chapel Hill as the Heels’ all-time leader in that category, too. Assuming a 36-game season, Paige would need to average 16.2 PPG to become the seventh member of UNC’s 2,000-point club. An average of 16.7 PPG would move him past Charles Scott and Al Wood into fifth place on the all-time scoring list.
Paige, battling injuries for most of his junior season, got stronger and stronger as the year went on, as illustrated by the following splits:
Nov-Dec: 30.3 MPG, 36.1 FG%, 34.9 3Pt%, 80.4 FT%, 51.7 TS%, 13.6 PPG, 3.8 APG, 1.75 A:TO, 1.2 SPG
Jan-Feb: 33.9 MPG, 43.1 FG%, 40.9 3Pt%, 88.6 FT%, 58.0 TS%, 13.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 2.93 A:TO, 1.6 SPG
March: 34.9 MPG, 46.1 FG%, 44.1 3Pt%, 96.0 FT%, 63.2 TS%, 16.0 PPG, 4.7 APG, 2.33 A:TO, 2.8 SPG
An area to watch again in Paige’s senior season will be his offensive production on and off the ball. More Joel Berry minutes at PG would suggest more minutes for Paige at SG this season. Last season, his splits by position were:
At PG: 666 minutes, 13.1 Pts/40, 6.6 Asst/40, 2.53 A:TO, 17.7 %Shots, 56.2 TS%, 109.4 Team ORtg, 97.7 Team DRtg, +16.7 Team Net Eff At SG: 596 minutes, 21.2 Pts/40, 4.1 Asst/40, 2.03 A:TO, 26.3 %Shots, 57.5 TS%, 114.1 Team ORtg, 108.1 Team DRtg, +6.0 Team Net Eff
“Player of the year candidate in the league. Obviously he’s a tremendous scorer at all three levels. He gets to the basket. He’s a guy you game plan for. You want to force him to his off hand, but even with that, it’s an area he improved and at the end of the year he was scoring going both right and left.” – ACC Coach
“I think you kind of want to contest late on his jump shots. If he’s just shooting threes you don’t want to give him any uncontested looks, but you don’t want him creating shots for his teammates. If you have a great guard, you want to make them one-dimensional. If he’s scoring it’s one thing, but if he’s scoring and creating shots for his teams, it’s kind of like the Trey Burke factor when he was at Michigan.” – ACC Coach
“You really just can’t ever leave him and if you do he’s going to make you pay. He can go both ways. He can shoot off the catch and shoot off the dribble. Really at the end of the game, no matter what is going on in the game, he’s getting the ball. You just have to know the ball is going to him and you have to do everything you can not to foul him. He’s an almost perfect free throw shooter.” – ACC Coach
“Best bet is to make him shoot contested twos. If you leave him open he’s going to hurt you from three, especially with their team they don’t have a ton of shooting besides him.” – ACC Coach
“He knows how to play basketball. He’s been asked to score the ball more than he’ll be able to do in the NBA or asked to do in the NBA. The guy can really play. He understands how to play pick and rolls, hits shots off the dribble, makes right reads and right decisions. Some of his best attributes are his feel for the game as well as his ability to score.” – NBA Scout
“He’s had a hell of a career. From an NBA perspective he’s been an unselfish guy who has been asked to do everything and he’s done it and has gone about his business. So you like his makeup. Just comes down to ‘are you good enough?’ in the NBA. It’s a very unforgiving league.” – NBA Scout
“I tend to think when I see Marcus that he’s actually a better point guard than he’s given credit for. The question marks are how well he can create for others and his consistency in his shot. When he gets hot he really gets going, but is he a pure shooter? Will he be able to get that jumper off in the NBA? The way he plays, you’d want him to ideally be a 6-3 combo guard.” – NBA Scout
“He’s a heck of a college player, but he’ll have to scrap, claw and grind in order to stick. He’s got some things working against him. The lack of success of the Shane Larkins and the Shabazz Napiers in the league isn’t a great thing for him – guys who were terrific college guards, undersized. He has the ability to shoot the ball and keep people off him from three-point range, but is he quick enough to get by you at the pro level? At the end of the day he’s probably a guy that will have to fight his way through summer leagues, training camps, to see if he can stick on a roster. His character will count, his lack of top level athletic ability will also count. You have to be a special guy at that size.” – NBA Scout
(J.B. Cissell, Evan Daniels, Sherrell McMillan, Jack Morton, Ben Sherman contributed to this feature.)