"Marcus, how would you grade yourself this season?" Williams asked Paige.
That's a tricky question to answer. Grade yourself too easily, and you risk looking soft. Grade yourself too harshly, and you risk suggesting that you weren't as good as the coach perhaps thought you were.
"I was kind of nervous about it," Paige admits with a laugh. "I had to think about it for a second. I played it safe and went with a 'B,' because I felt like I improved over the course of the year."
As they were for most of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, Paige and Williams were on the same wavelength. After Paige cautiously graded his season as a B, the head coach revealed he'd give the point guard "a B, maybe pushing towards a B- because I like to challenge you."
Williams gave Paige several points of emphasis for the summer: cutting down on turnovers, increasing his assist/turnover ratio and shooting the ball more consistently.
As Paige's self-assessment pointed out, he improved throughout the year in all of those categories. After struggling with his shooting for the first month of the season, he closed fast, hitting an impressive 52.8 percent of his field goals in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments combined, and 42.9 percent of his three-pointers in that same stretch.
Paige's postseason assist/turnover ratio was a steady 2.4, and he'll try to test himself this summer against an impressive array of professional point guards expected to be in Chapel Hill for at least part of the offseason.
Raymond Felton (currently piloting the Knicks to a 2-0 playoff series lead over the Celtics) was a regular last summer, and Ty Lawson (19 points and 12 assists last night for the Nuggets) will also stop by. ACC single-season assist record-holder Kendall Marshall will also be in town, meaning the Smith Center is essentially the perfect summer laboratory for any young point guard trying to learn some veteran tricks.
That's part of the reason why Paige--who had a stellar academic year and doesn't need the course credits--considered going home for the first session of summer school. But the basketball possibilities were too great, so he enrolled for both sessions.
In addition to improving some of his measurable statistics, Paige also has another goal for this summer play: he wants to challenge himself defensively against the likes of Felton, Lawson and Marshall. Refining his defense might seem like a strange goal for a player who earned the squad's defensive player of the year award, but he knows there's room to improve.
"That award is more about positional defense and our system defense," Paige says. "It's not about going one-on-one with someone and stopping them. I want to reach the point where offensive players don't want me guarding them. I want to be a better on the ball defender and pressure people more."
Several of Paige's offseason goals--improved defense, better finishing around the basket--have a common thread: increased bulk and athleticism. The freshman was listed as 157 pounds for his freshman season, the lightest scholarship Tar Heel in the Williams era. Not surprisingly, that earned him entry into a trio that began early mandatory spring weightlifting sessions: Desmond Hubert, Brice Johnson and Paige.
It was during one of those lifts that Paige looked at strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian and said, "Jonas, I've never done this before. I don't even know what's going on."
Sahratian didn't change expression and didn't miss a beat. "Marcus," he replied, "you're going to be saying that a lot this summer."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.