If the Heels hope to notch a championship in the next four seasons, then Marcus Paige needs to be their guy for this one.
In the several months since the 2011-12 season ended, the freshman point guard has fractured his left foot, sidelining him for all-star games, pro-am showcases, and summer workouts; he has watched his top two scoring options and 70% of the Carolina offense evacuate Chapel Hill; he’s seen a year-long apprenticeship under Cousy Award-winning Kendall Marshall evaporate into thin air; and, to top it off, he has a four-star point guard lined up to try to steal his spot next season.
In effect, the freshman is starting a step behind his teammates and classmates across the nation with minimal prep time, minimal on-court mentorship, minimal resources to ease the offensive burden, and minimal security regarding the short- and long-term prospects of his starting position. Factor in the strictly physical challenges of rehabbing an injury and the desire to disprove projections of a “down year” in Chapel Hill, and that’s about as high-pressure as it gets.
But these factors don’t account for the greatest pressure-packed condition of all—expectation. In Chapel Hill, even “down years” or “foundational seasons” come with visions of winning it all, and any Tar Heel fan hopeful of a national championship in the near future will be expecting big things out of Marcus Paige. And for good reason: our championship point guards hit the ground running.
It’s no revelation that point guards are pivotal players in Roy Williams’s offense. But when you look at Roy’s two national title teams in germination, you find just how pivotal freshman seasons are for the future success of those point guards and their teams.
Raymond Felton started all 35 games his freshman season. He averaged 35.4 minutes, 12.9 points, and 6.7 assists per game. Ty Lawson started 31 of 38 games his freshman year, averaging 25.7 mpg, 10.2 ppg, and 5.6 apg. Both were among their team’s top contributors those years in terms of games played, starts, and minutes per game.
Contrast that with the freshman seasons of some other point guards in the Roy Williams era. Quentin Thomas started one game as a freshman, averaging 6.3 minutes and less than a point per game. Larry Drew II averaged 9.6 mpg and 1.4 ppg his first year without a single start. Both piggy-backed into national championships their freshman seasons, but neither managed to lead the Heels back to prominence in their remaining years. Kendall Marshall might be one of the best point guards to ever put on a Carolina jersey, but before taking over for Drew II eighteen games into his freshman season, Marshall had played 20 or more minutes only twice and averaged 15.8 minutes per game without starting a single one. He left Chapel Hill without ever notching a Final Four appearance, much less a national championship.
Early point guard involvement and future Tar Heel success, it seems, are directly correlated. Don’t get me wrong, no one expects the Heels to win it all this year. (As a freshman, Felton’s 2002-03 team went 19-16, finished seventh in the conference, and missed the NCAA tournament.) But, for the sake of Carolina teams of the near future, Paige needs to be involved and contributing as early and as often as possible. And he doesn’t have to be a superstar.
Bobby Frasor’s name won’t show up much in record books, or surface in conversations about great Tar Heel point guards. As a senior, he started only four games and contributed off the bench for the 2009 National Champions. But as a freshman in 2005-06, Frasor started all 31 games, played the third-most minutes on the team, and led the team in assists. For Frasor—as for the rest of the past decade’s North Carolina point guards—his freshman season mattered.
Anyone questioning Roy’s decision to start Paige from the first jump this year (even considering his 6 assists to 7 turnovers so far) would do well to remember not only how the last experiment with Strickland at point guard panned out, but also that history shows that the earlier Roy’s point guards are involved and contributing, the better the results are down the line. Starting Strickland at point guard this year would be a mistake on par with starting Drew II over Marshall for 17 games two seasons ago.
If this is indeed a foundational class and a rebuilding season in Chapel Hill, then Marcus Paige is a key cornerstone for the future of Carolina basketball—and that future begins with major contributions day one.