By Adam Lucas, GoHeels.com
Marcus Paige harbors no illusions about some of the most important shots he made as a freshman at North Carolina.
With his Tar Heels leading by just one point with three minutes left in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Maryland, Paige stuck a jumper. Then, with the lead at 75-72 with fewer than 45 seconds left, Paige drove right and arched through a left-handed teardrop that neatly scraped past the side of the backboard.
The next day, in the championship game against Miami, he played exceptionally in a back-and-forth first half, then knocked in a second-half jumper that cut Carolina's deficit to just three points with 3:37 remaining.
On a team that included P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo, Paige wasn't always the first offensive option...or the second, as he freely admits. But he had the toughness to take those shots, and he had the skill level to make them. As he prepares for his sophomore year, he wants to be the player fans and teammates want to have scoring opportunities in tight games.
"I made a couple of shots last year that people were like, 'No, no, no!'" Paige says. "Now, it's going to be more of a commanding role for me to demand the ball in those situations so I can make a play, rather than just ending up with the ball. That's the next progression for me."
Paige quietly had a very solid freshman year, posting a 1.87 assist/turnover ratio that was higher than, for example, Bobby Frasor or Raymond Felton as freshmen. All three of those players were tossed into starting roles as freshmen without much opportunity to learn and observe from the bench.
During his freshman campaign, Paige showed a willingness to stick his nose into the paint, even when being outweighed by 100 pounds or more by the beefier players in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Predictably, his offseason regimen has included lots of strength work with Jonas Sahratian.
"I've always played lighter than my opponents," Paige says. "Even in high school, I wasn't the heaviest guy on the court. In college, strength is a key part of the game. The refs let you play, and it's a lot more physical. When you take a pounding, you get tired faster."
Paige said he first noticed the tangible effects of his weight disadvantage during the taxing three-games-in-three-days Maui Invitational. His offseason has been designed to help him get through those scenarios. After arriving in Chapel Hill at 157 pounds, Paige currently weighs 171 pounds, and says he'd like to try playing at 175 as a sophomore.
The Iowa native isn't only focusing on his own game this summer. After spending 12 months as the neophyte, he's officially graduated to veteran status (34 starts for North Carolina will do that to you) and is trying to assist freshman Nate Britt in his transition to college basketball. Because Kendall Marshall departed early for the NBA, Paige didn't really have a full-time mentor last summer. He wants to serve that role for Britt, and knows the development of their on-court chemistry might even affect Paige's role.
"Coach (Williams) is pretty specific when it comes to his system and his point guards," Paige says. "I think Nate will have an easier adjustment than I did. He's a little more of a passer and he's really quick. His vision is off the charts. Now that he's fully healthy, we're seeing some of the things he's capable of doing...Coach has come up to me and asked if I'm comfortable learning a little bit of two (guard). I think we're going to see that a couple times this year, and if it's effective, why not roll with it?"
That's all mid-summer speculation at this point, of course. But it's quite a change for the freshman who once was the taker of the "No, no, no!" shots to think about spending a couple minutes at shooting guard. And really, when you think back on the end of his freshman year and the developing floater that he regularly flashed, he's right--he has the potential to be a player you want taking those late-clock shots.
"My teammates feel comfortable with me having the ball," Paige says. "I have their trust. Once they trust you, you can be yourself."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly.