Marcus Paige finally in comfort zone

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
7:42
PM ET
Finally, it seems North Carolina Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige will enter a season where things are exactly how he expects them to be.

That didn't happen when he signed out of high school. Paige thought he'd play backup to Kendall Marshall at point guard and slowly make the transition to the college game. Instead Marshall bolted for the NBA, which sent Paige into the starting lineup from the opening tip.

It didn't happen as a sophomore. P.J. Hairston figured to be the Tar Heels go-to scorer on the floor, but was never reinstated after receiving impermissible benefits. That forced Paige to take over the scoring burden.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Eric GayMarcus Paige, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points, hit some big shots down the stretch against Providence.
For the nine games Leslie McDonald was ineligible, Paige was the Heels' only 3-point threat. For the entire season, he was the only player UNC fans felt comfortable seeing at the free throw line.

"There were some things that happened in the offseason that obviously shook up our team a little bit -- a lot of bit -- and just kind of changed the whole dynamic of leadership, of scoring options all that stuff," Paige said. "This year we haven't any of that. Our roster has been set. Everybody is good to go. It's been a lot more relaxing from that standpoint. I'm more at ease with what's going on."

Entering his junior season, Paige is burden-free. And that may actually mean he does less next season as the Tar Heels accomplish more.

Paige became the first player to lead the Heels in both scoring (17.5) and assists (4.2) since Jeff McInnis (16.5 ppg, 5.5 apg) in 1995-96. But with the offensive weapons added to the roster, he doesn't think he'll have to score as much next season.

"Our scoring will be more balanced this year, there's guys that are ready to make leaps, especially offensively," Paige said.

Starting with sophomore center Kennedy Meeks, who has dropped nearly 50 pounds from where he arrived on campus and is down to 271. Meeks' conditioning will allow him to stay on the court longer. He showed snapshots of his potential last season including his 13-point, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the win over Louisville.

Paige pointed to forwards Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto as having bigger roles and he said the freshmen trio of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson were all talented scorers as well. He said it should amount to the Heels not having as much trouble scoring in halfcourt as they did last season.

"I expect to shoot a higher percentage from the floor and from the 3-point line," Paige said. "I shouldn't have to take as many tough shots as I had to take last year at times to try to create points. We struggled to score a lot in the half court last year against tough defensive teams. I think I won't have to do that as much."

But for the times he will have the ball and the Heels need a basket, Paige said he's been working this summer on scoring in isolation and creating his own shot.

Paige doesn't expect a repeat of last season's tendency to have quiet starts offensively before erupting in the second half.

"Coach [Steve] Robinson told me to set the tone with my intensity and my aggressiveness and if they have to scale me back they'll do that," Paige said. "That's kind of the mindset I'm going to have going in, but I wouldn't expect to average 20 [points] a game or anything this year because we're too talented for that."

Paige could again find himself playing off the ball for portions of the game with either sophomore Nate Britt or Berry running point. He could also see a lineup when he is at point guard and joined by the 6-foot-6 Pinson or 6-foot-8 Jackson at shooting guard.

That's the kind of versatility that gives Paige high hopes for the coming season.

"I don't think there's any team that I'm looking at like, 'We can't beat them,' or 'we don't have the talent to matchup with them,'" Paige said. "We'll definitely have our tests with our schedule, but I think that will help us out and I think we're a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all our pieces together."

Paige was asked about the ESPN.com college basketball coach poll that ranked UNC's Roy Williams 16th: "That's kind of ridiculous honestly. There's no chance that's remotely close. I may be biased, but, no way."

C.L. Brown | email

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