(Orginally posted at Upside & Motor)
North Carolina closed its non-conference schedule on Tuesday with a 22-point victory over William & Mary at home. The Tar Heels enter ACC play with a 10-3 record that features decent wins over California Los Angeles, Florida and Ohio State and a couple of head-scratching losses to Butler and Iowa, aside from getting run over by Kentucky. As currently developed, this team is expected to end the season with a high win total due to its collection of impressive athletes but doesn’t look like much of a title contender unless Marcus Paige starts scoring more efficiently.
Paige remains a prolific shooter. He hit his 221 three-point attempts at a 39 percent clip last season and through these first 13 games, he’s hit a slightly below average 35 percent of his 86 tries but while maintaining his average of makes per-40 minutes about the same. The lefty still gets great elevation off the ground and has a quick trigger off the catch. Most impressively, Paige is able to hit well contested shots by lengthy defenders, as he showcased against Kentucky and Ohio State.
North Carolina is a little less codependent of him to generate all their spacing than they were a season ago but he remains by far their most reliable source of outside scoring. Paige has 30 three-pointers in his 394 minutes while his teammates have combined for 32 in their 2,206. Perhaps because of that, Roy Williams has moved him off the ball full time, even when Nate Britt II isn’t the on the floor. He’s taken almost 60 percent of his shots from three-point range, having been assisted on 22 of his 30 makes.
North Carolina will swing the ball from side to side multiple times per possession and Paige still has opportunities to create off the bounce, but J.P. Tokoto is more often the one bringing the ball up the court and initiating offense. That’s not to say Paige hasn’t been able to flash his high basketball IQ constantly; he is still passing ahead in transition, quickly moving the ball around the perimeter to keep the offense moving when he doesn’t have a shot and assisting out of dribble penetration when it’s needed of him to attack a set defense. His assist rate is only marginally down in comparison to last season, too. Nevertheless, he has struggled mightily scoring off the bounce.
As I mentioned in his offseason profile, Paige is unable to get separation against high level competition in isolation or turning the corner off a ball-screen and that’s been a little more evident this season. Paige showcased his floater in a couple of instances against Kentucky and Ohio State, and that remains a vital part of his arsenal. But he lacks explosion to attack length with much speed and can’t finish in traffic – missing 11 of his 18 attempts at the rim, according to Hoop Math.
Paige relies heavily on his savviness when setting up defenders to create just enough space off the ball-screen for his pull-ups but hasn’t shot well on such attempts this season, hitting only 37.2 percent of his 43 two-point jump-shots. There doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with his shot, though, and he’s expected to raise that percentage back to its normal mid-40s as the season progresses. But despite his struggles creating his own interior scoring, North Carolina still scores more efficiently with him on the floor thanks to the power of his three-point shot.
On the other end, the issues remain the same. Paige does look to play with effort; getting on his stance, with active hands and making plays in the passing lane. But he lacks the lateral quickness to stay in front of more athletic guards in isolation or navigating screens well enough to stay alive if opponents attempt to turn the corner. Paige doesn’t have much strength to contain dribble penetration through contact or speed and length to effectively contest shots in the perimeter. Simply without the physical profile necessary to contribute much in score prevention, Paige has the lowest defensive rating on the team among rotation players, per Basketball Reference.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.