UNC 2013-14 Position Previews: Point Guard

Streeter Lecka

This is our first in a series of previews where our UNC contingent (Zeke & Will) looks ahead to next year's Tar Heel squad. First up on the agenda: Marcus Paige and the rest of the UNC PGs.

Zeke: Everyone knows how crucial point guards are in Roy's system, so the fact that Marcus Paige played so well towards the end of the year gives UNC fans a lot of hope for next season already. However, watching Paige succeed primarily as a perimeter threat alongside the smallball lineup did make me wonder whether he is a good point guard, or just a good offensive player. His assist/TO ratio wasn't bad, but I don't know that I ever thought of him as a good creator and facilitator, which I would love to see improve. Even if he is more of a shoot-first, combo-guard type, I like the fact that towards the end of the year we saw some clear progression in his game, including beating guys off the dribble more (nearly half of his shots this year were 3s, when he should have been using his more-than-capable handle) and becoming a more opportunistic defender (averaging more than 2 steals a game in the smallball lineup as he started doubling down on big guys more). I'm counting on him making a sophomore leap that could raise some eyebrows around the ACC - what do you think his ceiling might be?

Will: I'm incredibly high on Paige with no obvious reason to point to from last season as to why (the same way I was incredibly high on Hairston after and during his 7-for-50 stretch, or whatever it was, as a freshman). Hairston has become one of our most important players, and I see that path for Paige, as well. The fact that he got a full season as a starter under his belt in year one is huge--especially considering the future successes enjoyed by UNC point guards who started the majority of their freshman seasons (Felton, Lawson, Frasor)--and I love that Roy stuck with him as his guy from day one, dismissing the suggestion that Strickland take his place in the starting lineup at various points last season, almost to the point of bafflement. Roy has unquestioned confidence in Paige, which gives me confidence as well.

I'm not at all worried about Paige on the offensive end. After years of Drew II, Strickland, and Marshall, it feels great to have a point guard that can score once again. Especially one that can shoot. Having three deadly shooters on the perimeter is going to be incredibly hard to guard. Shooting-wise, Paige/Bullock/Hairston probably aren't at the level of Lawson/Ellington/Green, but they're very close. I think he'll be a better distributor and catalyst than people think, and he showed flashes of that as he got more comfortable in the position. The real question, for me, is how and whether he can continue to develop on the defensive end without the speed and quickness of a Felton or Lawson.
One thing that's not a question, in my mind, is Paige's toughness, especially his mental toughness, which he showcased more towards the end of the season. The extent to which the Heels become Paige and Hairston's team over the next two years (i.e. tough) will be a determining factor in our level of success.

As far as ceiling goes, I think Paige (along with Quinn Cook) will challenge Larkin for top point guard in the league this year. As a junior, and especially if we can keep him as a senior, he could certainly be one of the best players in the nation. I don't foresee him in the pantheon of Lawson, Felton, and Cota, but he is going to be GOOD.

Zeke: I agree he is going to be really good and find it hard to picture him leaving school early... but I would have said exactly the same thing about Marshall after his freshman year, too. Not sure if I have his ceiling quite as high as you do, but maybe I should given the Roy Williams point guard he reminds me of the most: Kirk Hinrich. I was racking my brain trying to find a good player comparison when Hinrich popped in and seemed to fit the memory test of not being known as a distributor, but a multi-skilled offensive player who ran the team well and wasn't afraid of the moment. Then I looked at Hinrich's freshman year numbers and they are scary close to what Paige put up this year (the only difference being a scoring edge that Paige gets by virtue of having played more minutes, but their per-40 stats are incredibly similar). Check out their Statsheet comparison:

If Hinrich's career is the kind of trajectory Paige is on, then maybe I should indeed be thinking about him as potentially one of the best future point men in the country. I can't remember if Hinrich as a freshman had earned the same reputation as a good defensive player he had by the end of his Kansas career, but that's the biggest gap between them that I can see. If Paige puts a little weight on his frame and can use his body a little better to keep guys in front of him, we'll have a stud on both ends of the floor.

Will: I don't remember Hinrich as a freshman either (and I'm not his biggest fan today), but the comparison is probably a good one (despite the size discrepancy), especially looking at that freshman year comparison. Although, I'd hate to see Paige playing with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and a bunch of Dukies in ten years.

Zeke: I wouldn't wish that fate on anyone, Will. However, I'm conscious it's not all about Paige - we've got a couple of solid pure-point options backing him up, including another lefty - the incoming Nate Britt. With Paige getting the lion's share of minutes, how do you feel about the guys behind him?

Will: Britt was a four-star prospect when he committed to Carolina more than a year ago. He has since fallen into the three-star range after battling a torn right meniscus, which he had surgery on in December (which makes two years in a row that our incoming point guard begins his college career rehabbing an injury). Whether the drop-off is more a result of injury setback (which would be unfortunate) or complacency after having committed to Carolina so early (which would be worse) is hard to tell.

Regardless, Britt is a very good point guard who will keep Paige on his toes throughout the year. The Oak Hill team captain was, by all accounts, known for his leadership and "floor general" capabilities in high school, which will hopefully translate, at the very least, to dependability as a backup in college. Roy has even toyed with the idea of playing Paige and Britt together at times, which would be interesting.

Luke Davis is as solid a third-stringer as you can hope for. His teammates and coaches say he is about the hardest-working guy on the team (he was the team's mile-run winner last year), and like Britt (and his predecessor, Stilman White) is a point-guard-first point guard. In 4.1 minutes per game last year, he posted a 3.43 assist-to-turnover ratio and 0.293 assists per minute (compared to 0.158 for Paige, and 0.295 for Marshall's record-breaking season the year before).

All in all, I think we're in pretty good shape point guard-wise this season. What will be more interesting is watching what happens next year if Paige, Britt, and Davis all return--along with White from his Mormon mission and Florida Class 4A state champion, repeat Mr. Basketball for the state of Florida, and five-star 2014 commit, Joel Berry.

Zeke: Agreed. Could be a logjam in a few years, but for the time being the immediate future looks good.

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