CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Before Marcus Paige broke his right hand in preseason practice and not long after Theo Pinson’s foot surgery in May turned into a five-month rehab odyssey, Roy Williams was considering a starting five that mirrored last season’s lineup, albeit with Pinson sliding into departed J.P. Tokoto’s spot at the off guard.
Then came the freak injury in practice on Nov. 3, when Paige’s hand got caught in Luke Maye’s jersey while defending a cut down the lane, that shifted the paradigm in place and ultimately moved the senior guard out of his preferred point guard position.
Prior to UNC’s season opener against Temple, Williams was asked how the starting lineup would change once Paige returned. In hindsight, his response leaps off the page: “If Joel was playing great, then Marcus would spend more time at the two. If Theo was playing great, Marcus would spend more time at the one.”
The former won out, and as a result, Paige’s continued shooting struggles in recent weeks have prompted questions regarding his role on the team and if his production would increase by switching back to point guard. In Saturday’s win over No. 11 Miami, Williams tested the theory with Pinson, freshman Kenny Williams and even junior point Nate Britt playing off the ball alongside of Paige.
“Today was the first day all year where I played significant minutes at the point guard,” Paige said after the game. “Our coaches talked about shuffling it to where I think when Nate is in the game, I’m the point guard – just have the ball in my hands to help me feel more comfortable. And I think that helped me out a lot.
“I didn’t shoot the ball well today or anything but I felt like a completely different player today, being able to have the ball in my hands and make some plays and pitch the ball ahead in transition. It was weird. It felt good.”
That was not a conversation Paige and the coaching staff had until last week. Assistant coach Hubert Davis broached the topic, asking the ACC Preseason Co-Player of the Year for his opinion on what needed to take place for the senior to feel more comfortable and become a bigger part of UNC’s offense.
“I think they agreed that having the ball in my hands a little bit more would help me and help the team,” Paige said.
Paige’s 12.4 points on 40.2 percent shooting this season are the lowest marks since his freshman campaign in 2012-13. Those stats have dropped further in ACC play, where the Marion, Iowa native is averaging 11.4 points on 37.0 percent shooting.
Paige ranked third in league play in offensive efficiency rating as a junior (122.9) after finishing 13th after his All America season as a sophomore (118.0), according to kenpom.com. That rating has plummeted to 106.9 through 12 ACC games this season.
Compounding the problem, or perhaps explaining it, is that Paige is factoring into 17.9 percent of UNC’s possessions in ACC play this season, according to kenpom.com, down from 19.1 percent in 2014-15 and 21.9 percent in 2013-14.
The other variable in the point guard equation has been the play of Berry, whose play Williams has praised on multiple occasions.
“Joel Berry has been very consistent on both ends of the court, there’s no question,” Williams said in late January while his sophomore point guard was in the midst of 12-game streak of scoring in double figures.
Williams told reporters on Saturday that Paige was favoring his left hand while dribbling the ball once he returned from his injury on Dec. 1, which along with Berry’s solid start to the season at point, cemented the decision to move the senior off the ball.
“Joel was playing really well, so when I came back in, it was like, ‘we’re not going to take Joel out because he’s playing really well,’ so they just slotted me at the two,” Paige said. “And then we played arguably our best game of the year, which was the Maryland game. And then we hit a stretch where we didn’t play so well and I thought that as soon as my hand would get better that I would go back to the point guard.”
That has not happened, although if Saturday is any indication, Paige will continue to log increased minutes at point guard as the postseason approaches.