CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marcus Paige has long been viewed as North Carolina’s best option at point guard. So far this season, however, the senior has played primarily at the off-guard spot due to the improved play of point guards Joel Berry and Nate Britt running the offense.
The offseason banter suggested that wing Theo Pinson would start at the two-guard alongside of Paige at the point, thereby adding length and athleticism on the perimeter while letting UNC’s All-American run the team from his preferred position. That hasn’t been the case. Since Paige’s return from a broken right hand prior to the ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup with No. 6 Maryland, it’s been Berry starting at the point and Britt providing valuable minutes off the bench at point.
“They got a lot of confidence when I was out,” Paige said after Sunday’s win over Davidson. “That’s kind of transferred… I’m more off the ball this year than I have been in the past because those guys are playing so well and they’re so comfortable. They’ve got a lot of confidence.”
Since Paige reentered the lineup nine days ago, Berry is averaging 12.5 points on 47.1 percent shooting to go along with a 3:1 assist-turnover ratio (9-3) in 29 minutes. Britt is averaging 11 points on 61.5 percent shooting and has dished out four assists without a turnover in logging 13 minutes per game.
Taking care of the ball is imperative in running Roy Williams’s up-tempo transition offense, although what’s boosted the duo’s value more than anything is their hot hand from outside. Berry and Britt have combined to shoot 60 percent (9-of-15) from 3-point range over their last two games.
For the season, the pair has knocked down 41.8 percent of their treys, paced by Britt’s 48.1 shooting percentage (13-of-27).
“I think if you ask anyone on our team, the two guys that worked the hardest on their shot in the offseason were Joel Berry and Nate Britt, and it shows up during the season,” Williams said.
Paige has been Paige thus far despite the injury, shooting 50 percent from the floor, 60 percent from beyond the arc and leading the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game. That provides Williams with a trio of sure-handed ball handlers to push the tempo to his liking.
“Individually, everyone has improved,” Britt said. “Marcus is so great. Joel has gotten a lot better. You can see that he’s a lot more comfortable. He’s knocking down a lot more shots. He could always shoot it; it was just trying to transition it into the game. I think he’s done a great job of that this year. He gets the team into sets. I think I’ve made some improvements.
“We all have a good feel for each other, so with everyone improving and us knowing our strengths, we can help each other out, and we can be really effective on the court.”
Paige referenced the grouping as being “in a groove” in terms of playing off one another’s skillsets, while also understanding and even valuing the changing roles that his return prompted. After Britt played just 10 minutes against Maryland – down 13.5 minutes from his average through the first six games – Paige made a point to address the topic with his teammate after the game.
“No matter how the rotation goes, you’re still a really key part of this team,” Paige said. “We need you to provide depth and provide steadiness in the backcourt. That’s what he has been, and he will be this entire year. He’s rock solid. He’s a veteran now. He’s shooting the ball extremely well.”
For Britt, the Maryland game was more about the team realizing its potential with Paige back in the lineup. The junior talked like a veteran in his postgame interview on Sunday, telling reporters that the team was more important than the individuals, and that both he and his teammates understood their roles and that minutes would be cut once Paige returned.
While Berry’s minutes haven’t dropped nearly as much, his role has shifted into more of a facilitator with a willingness and an ability to take the shots that come his way. The assertiveness displayed by both Berry and Britt early in the season has added a welcome, if not surprising, dynamic to a UNC offense that was expected to pair a strong frontcourt with scoring by Paige and Justin Jackson on the perimeter.
“They’re just being aggressive, and that’s what we need them to do,” Jackson said. “A lot of times you can start thinking too much. You start worrying about things like playing time, or that I’m not getting the ball as much, I’m not shooting as much. I’ve fallen into the same thing, so to see them come out and step into shots, as if they’ve made 100s of them, I think that’s the biggest thing. They’re just playing with so much more confidence.”