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North Carolina at No. 18 N.C. State 7 p.m. Saturday, ESPN

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Marcus Paige: UNC freshman ready to run the show

Freshman Marcus Paige grows more comfortable leading UNC’s up-tempo offense

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

CHAPEL HILL Ellis Paige grew up in Chicago, where he learned to play basketball and learned about the importance of confidence on city courts against players bigger, older and meaner.

Playing in Chicago, Paige said, “you don’t back down. You always feel like you’re the best.”

He has tried to instill that attitude into his son, Marcus, the freshman point guard at North Carolina.

“I said, ‘Hey man, you know what – the one thing that you don’t realize is every time you go out there you have to compete because everyone on that level is just as good as you are,’ ” the elder Paige said during a recent phone interview. “And that’s a hard thing for him to understand.

“When you’re so used to being awesome all the time, you’ve just got to compete.”

Paige arrived at UNC as one of the top point guard prospects in the nation. Indeed, he had long been “awesome” as a young player growing up in Iowa, where he learned the game from his father, a juvenile probation officer, and his mother, a high school English teacher who also coached the girls’ basketball team and Paige’s sister, Morgan, a junior guard at Wisconsin.

School came easily for Marcus Paige, who graduated from Linn-Mar High in Marion, Iowa, with a grade-point average that exceeded 4.0. Basketball came easily, too. Yet his first season at UNC has been full of challenges, learning experiences and obstacles.

On Saturday, when the Tar Heels play at N.C. State, Paige will compete head-to-head against Lorenzo Brown, the Wolfpack point guard who is among the nation’s best. It will be an opportunity both for Paige to prove himself, and to prove how far he has come since in the two months since he started his first college game.

“It’s a day-by-day thing,” UNC coach Roy Williams said recently of Paige’s incremental improvement. “That he’s just learning more and more about the college game and what we need him to do and what he needs to do – what he can do that he can be successful with, some things that he has to leave out that he hasn’t been successful with.”

Kendall Marshall’s departure instantly changed the dynamic of this UNC team. It changed Paige’s mental approach, too.

“I go from thinking hopefully I can provide this team with some quality minutes, to night in and night out, I have to be consistent and be a floor leader, and kind of orchestrate the offense,” Paige said. “I didn’t feel a bunch of pressure. I just saw a great opportunity.”

The pressure did come after a while, though. In Paige’s first game, a victory against Gardner-Webb, he had four turnovers and zero assists. He had five turnovers in a victory not long after against Long Beach State.

Some mistakes showed up in the box score. Other intangibles, such as confidence or adapting, were less noticeable. Paige said the transition might have been more difficult than anticipated.

“In high school, you can get away with taking possessions off, or just coasting, just based on pure talent,” he said. “But here that doesn’t work. So that’s been the biggest challenge – just bringing it every single possession.”

Back in Iowa, Ellis Paige hasn’t worried much about his son and his development. The elder Paige said he has seen signs that make him believe success will come soon.

Those signs aren’t necessarily based on numbers. Statistically, Paige’s improvement has been difficult to measure. He has had six assists in each of UNC’s past two games, but he’s also made just two of his 13 shots in that span.

Yet the numbers tell only part of the story. Paige has appeared more comfortable on the court. He has led the Tar Heels’ in transition. He has tried, with some success, to pass ahead to jump-start the offense – just like Marshall so often did.

“Kendall had that unique skill set of being one of the best passers in the history of college basketball,” Paige said. “I mean, he was unreal – almost like a magician with the basketball. I think my skill set differs. Where I still like to get teammates the ball, at times I like to try to attack and create my own offense.”

After some of his more difficult games, he said he has received encouraging text messages from Marshall.

Paige spent time during the summer Marshall, who has remained in touch, Paige said.

“He just helped me with what reads to look for in secondary [break],” Paige said. “… And then just telling me how important it was for a point guard to be a leader. Because other guys might have more experience than me on this team – everyone, I mean, I’m a freshman – but he said it’s still important for the guy that has the ball, the point guard, to be able to be a leader on the floor. So I took that to heart.”

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