Being a coach--well, being a good coach--means knowing when to encourage and when to challenge. It means being able to switch from counselor to teacher to motivator within hours and sometimes within minutes.
Yesterday, Roy Williams grabbed freshman point guard Marcus Paige after practice. The Iowa native plays probably the most difficult position in the entire Tar Heel system. In terms of overwhelming job duties and attention from Williams, "freshman point guard" edges out even "court sticker designer" or "one-eyed referee" on his scale of attentiveness.
The coach sensed that his point guard needed some encouragement. "I had a sit-down and talked to Coach about being confident in who I am as a player and playing to my strengths instead of trying to do everything exactly the right way," Paige said.
That's a very subtle nuance. Williams is fond of saying, "Do what I tell you to do." A freshman hears that and thinks it means he is supposed to do exactly what the head coach says. Don't deviate and certainly don't improvise. There have been times this year that Williams calls a play and you can see Paige processing the call, then running through it exactly the way it was done in practice, no matter what defense the opponent might be using or how the defenders react.
What Williams tried to explain to Paige yesterday is that he gives the players the outline. But he doesn't dribble, he doesn't shoot and he doesn't pass, so it's up to them to shade in the lines with appropriate flourishes.
"He wants us to run the system but also to be Marcus Paige and be who we are," Paige said. "He gives us certain secondary (break) options, and sometimes I tried to focus too much on running those exactly. If I see an opening, the ultimate goal is to score a basket. That gave me confidence to divert from the exact pattern of the play and make a play."
The results: a sparking 9-assist, 0-turnover game against McNeese State. Those nine assists went to five different players. Had the Tar Heels not had a very comfortable lead, Paige likely would've played the final 4:22 and had a great shot at earning his first double-digit assist game.
Part of the credit for Paige's assist numbers belongs to the Tar Heel shooters, as Carolina hit 46.4% from the three-point line, meaning they very nearly shot as well beyond the arc as they did from the two-point area (where the Tar Heels hit 47.8% of their attempts).
But part of that credit also goes to the player who made those passes, and a developing sense of when and where he should deliver the ball to his teammates.
"It comes with time," Paige said of learning those preferences. "One thing I've picked up is how our post players like getting the ball on different spots on the block. Brice likes it up and away. Joel would rather have it in his chest. Mac is more versatile. He'll step out and catch it away from the basket, or if he seals his man, you can throw the ball up high. Those seem like little things, but they make a big difference. And as you play more minutes with guys, you learn more about their sweet spots."
It would probably be beneficial to print and save that paragraph for every future season when the Tar Heels have a freshman point guard. No matter how much everyone wants to--Williams and Paige himself are included in that category--you just can't rush that type of adjustment.
The head coach knows that, and that's why he's willing to have patience with Paige and willing to boost his confidence on a Friday afternoon in December. But there's a balance, which is why on Saturday morning, it was time for a very different approach.
Back in October, Williams thought he would have a very good defensive team this year. But the Carolina guards have not been good recently, and their defensive miscues--as charted by the coaching staff in film grading sessions--have lately outweighed their good plays (the coaches would especially like the guards to "build out" the defense and pick up their man earlier).
"Dexter and I," Paige said, "have not been excelling in our defensive grades the last couple games. Coach said we can't have that happen again, and he said if it does we may have to start the five guys with the best defensive grades."
Which is why Paige probably seemed more proud of his defensive effort than his nine assists. The Cowboys shot just 35.6% and managed only 17.6% from the three-point line. Combined, starting McNeese guards Dontae Cannon and Kevin Hardy shot 6-of-24.
That's a very nice way to go into the Christmas break, as the Tar Heels are off until the evening of December 27, when they'll reassemble for practice at the Smith Center.
During his break, Paige knows he'll get plenty of questions from friends at home about what it's like to play at one of the nation's elite programs. He also knows exactly what he's going to say.
"It's a wonderful thing every day," he said, "because I get to play basketball for the team I always wanted to play for."
Fair enough, Marcus. Have a good Christmas. As it turned out, though, he wasn't finished.
"And," he added, "it's a great challenge every day, too."