CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Earlier this week, sitting in front of a throng of reporters and television cameras at North Carolina’s media day, Roy Williams shared the story of Marcus Paige receiving a tongue lashing by a teammate during a game for making an error.
As Williams told it, Paige played it cool and accepted the blame, saying, “My mistake.” With the matter closed, the Tar Heels redirected their attention in the huddle to the game at hand. Later, when Williams received the game film, he found that the teammate criticizing Paige was actually wrong.
“He handled it well,” Williams said. “If that had been me, if somebody had told me something like that and I knew that I hadn’t screwed it up, but that they had, I’d have gone back at them. And 90 percent of the people on my team would have.”
Paige stepped into the void left by the mass departures following the 2012 season and took a leadership role almost immediately as a freshman, and as a result, he developed into the rare coach on the court, earning praise from Williams as one of the top three leaders he’s ever been around. Add in the emotional presence of Brice Johnson and the mature demeanor of Joel James as notable losses, and it makes sense the glaring intangible of leadership resides atop the questions surrounding UNC’s 2016-17 season.
“They were always our leaders,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “Those were the guys that we always looked up to since our freshman year. With those guys being gone, that is a void that we’re expected to fill.”
Everyone watched Paige’s double-pump 3-pointer to tie the national championship game in the final seconds last April, but only his teammates and coaches heard his impassioned directives in the second-half huddles as UNC battled back from a 10-point deficit with 5:29 to play. Not only could Paige make the clutch shots, but he also shared the words his teammates needed to hear.
“Everybody had so much respect for him,” Williams said. “Okay, so how do you get that respect? Being able to handle tough situations. Be able to go 1-for-22 [from 3] in a bad stretch and step back and still have the confidence of everybody on our team… He just kept having the confidence that it was going to go in, and they fed off that.”
For Williams, the leadership role demands a forward-thinking approach. Next play, next game. Don’t allow the team to wallow in misery and mistakes. Play until the whistle. Play until the final buzzer.
During the first two weeks of preseason practice, however, the UNC upperclassmen have found that the smallest of details can be taken for granted. For example, Williams had to remind his seniors last week to make sure their teammates were running to their next station in practice, according to Britt.
Thus far, the Tar Heels have adopted a group approach to leadership with the hope that various contributions will outweigh the need for a singular voice.
“Everybody knows that we don’t have Marcus and Brice, so everybody’s picking it up,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “You see Joel Berry talking more. He’s pretty emotional, too, so he’s like a little bit of both because he’s so passionate about the game. People can feed off that.”
Junior wing Theo Pinson is the most talkative of the bunch, although even he praised Berry and wing Justin Jackson for moving out of their comfort zone and making their voices heard more in practice.
That may be where the biggest challenge lies for this current roster. Outside of Pinson, the upperclassmen have largely led by their actions throughout their careers, due in large part to the willingness to let Paige handle the vocal component, but also due to their respective nature. That adjustment period will take some time to play out.
“The three seniors have done a nice job, but those three juniors are good role models, too,” Williams said. “Everybody listens to what they say. Nobody’s at the level of Marcus yet, but you’re hoping that you see that.”