Marcus Paige has had a good season.
This seems like one of those generally accepted facts along the lines of "Malaysian radar could be better" or "ESPN analysts really like Michigan State." But in the course of Tuesday afternoon's Carolina basketball press conference, Roy Williams said something that should give Tar Heel fans pause.
When discussing Paige's All-ACC season, the head coach compared him to some of the other great Tar Heel point guards of the last decade. "The best thing about Raymond (Felton) is we had Sean (May) and Rashad (McCants) and Marvin (Williams) with him," Roy Williams said. "With Ty (Lawson), we had Wayne (Ellington) and Danny (Green) and Tyler (Hansbrough) up front. If I gave Marcus those guys, I'd be a lot more confident in Marcus, too. His year is comparable to any of those guys as to what he's done on the court."
As testament to Williams' comments, Paige has made 58.9 percent of Carolina's three-pointers this year; in Tar Heel history with the current three-point line (since 1986-87), only Hubert Davis in 1992 (59.0%) has made a greater share of Carolina's three-pointers.
We all know Paige has had a very good year; they don't put laundry in the rafters for merely adequate seasons. And let's forget Paige has done it while earning Academic All-America honors. It still feels like the general reaction to Paige's sophomore season has been more along the lines of "It's nice" rather than "It's incredible." So how exactly has he compared to some of the best seasons in the Williams era and beyond?
The current gold standard for a season by a point guard in the Williams era is Lawson in 2009, when he averaged 16.6 points per game while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and racking up a 3.48 assist/turnover ratio (reminder: Ty Lawson was really good his junior year).
It's difficult to compare the two seasons because Lawson had so many more weapons on his team. Paige would look pretty good throwing entry passes to Hansbrough, or penetrating and finding Ellington for a three-pointer. He's also faced the opponent's best perimeter defender virtually every night; in 2009, foes had to choose between stopping Lawson or Ellington from outside, and that was before they even considered Green (reminder: Carolina was really good in 2009).
Felton remains the personification of point guard toughness under Williams, and Paige's numbers are right there with him; Paige has averaged significantly more points this year (17.4 to 12.9) with similar field goal percentage numbers (.440 to .455) and a better assist/turnover ratio (2.04 to 1.93). Again, though, their roles were different, and Felton had McCants to serve as the backcourt's primary perimeter threat.
Let's look a little further back in Carolina history. The Tar Heel roster lists Paige at 6-foot-1. Assuming he finishes the year leading UNC in scoring, which is as safe an assumption as Sunrise making biscuits, he'll be the first player under 6-foot-3 to lead Carolina in scoring since Phil Ford in 1978. To find a player shorter than Paige who led the Tar Heels in scoring, you have to go back to 5-foot-11 Larry Brown in 1961-62--Dean Smith's first season as head coach, when the college game was just a little bit different.
The versatility of his floor game is also going to put him into an elite category. His 17.4 points per game currently lead the Tar Heels, and he also has a 2.04 assist/turnover ratio.
Turnovers were first tracked during the 1981-82 season. Since then-a span of 33 seasons-the only players to lead Carolina in scoring and also amass at least a 2:1 assist/turnover ratio are Jeff McInnis in 1996 and Kenny Smith in 1987.
Paige is shooting better from the field than McInnis did (.435) and has substantially more steals (49 to 38). Not insignificantly, Paige's team also has more wins than McInnis' club (21-11) did, and McInnis was playing on a team with first-team All-ACC member Antawn Jamison, third-team All-ACC member Dante Calabria and Vince Carter.
Smith's 1986-87 campaign is probably underappreciated in terms of great Tar Heel seasons. While directing his team to a 14-0 ACC regular season, he shot over 50 percent from the floor, hit over 40 percent from the three-point line, led the team in steals and had an assist/turnover ratio of 2.01. Yes, he had Jeff Lebo in the backcourt with him, but Smith--with some help from precocious freshman J.R. Reid at a time when freshman weren't expected to be precocious yet--was unquestionably the engine of that team.
If you absolutely had to rank the seasons by a Tar Heel point guard in terms of overall impact since the 1982 title, Lawson in 2009 and Smith in 1987 would head the list. With some history left to write, Paige's name belongs near theirs, both because of the tangible stats he has posted and because of the roster around him.
It will be interesting to see how that season translates to the NCAA tournament. As Williams noted on Tuesday, "In NCAA tournament play, the value of guards is perhaps even enhanced by the kind of games you're going to be playing. One game it's a slower tempo and one game it's a faster tempo. When we've had pretty good guards, we've been pretty doggone good in the tournament."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.