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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Point guard confusion escalates for Tar Heels

Posted by on Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 1:21 PM

Paiges diminutive frame has hindered his play
  • Chris Baird
  • Paige's diminutive frame has hindered his play
Roy Williams surprised many during the preseason when he publicly anointed freshman Marcus Paige as the starter at point guard. Like Dean Smith before him, Williams always has placed great emphasis on senior leadership and defaulted to upperclassmen on playing time issues.

In 2006-07, Bobby Frasor began the season starting ahead of rookie Ty Lawson, who was obviously the superior player. In 2010-11, and despite howls from nearly everyone invested in the program, Williams opted to start Larry Drew ahead of freshman Kendall Marshall even after that team began the year so terribly.

But this season opened with a different dynamic. Most believed that senior Dexter Strickland would receive the starting nod over the 6-1, 157-pound Paige, but Williams ended the competition before it could begin by preemptively stating that Paige would occupy the spot.

Strickland could have made a case for himself. He started at shooting guard for the Elite Eight squads of 2011 and 2012, and he had accumulated substantial experience sharing point guard duties with Drew in 2010 and backing up Marshall in 2011 and 2012. Prior to the season-ending knee injury he suffered last January, Strickland had been enjoying his finest season as a Tar Heel.

Despite Strickland’s extensive experience, Williams asserted that he never had been a true point guard. What Williams didn’t say was that Paige represents the team’s future at that position and that Strickland, in his final season, would not be around to quarterback stronger teams than the 2012-13 edition.

So while noting Williams’ apparent philosophy change that devalues experience slightly from its previous lofty status—and the fact that Strickland still would start on the wing—most fans nodded along and hoped Paige would justify his coach’s decision.

Through nine games, a frank assessment must conclude that Paige has fallen short. He’ll have at least 20 more games to improve, but Strickland clearly has performed better in his backup point guard role than Paige has as starter.

Neither player has shot well. Paige has hit threes slightly more accurately (29 percent to Strickland’s 23 percent) but also has hoisted 18 more attempts. In that sense Strickland’s discretion outweighs Paige’s superior, yet still poor percentage.

Strickland also has doled out more assists and committed fewer turnovers. He’s a vastly superior defensive player and, thanks to his transition scoring ability, has shot an overall higher percentage (43-to-38) than Paige.

Examining advanced metrics—which have become the 10-inch penis of player debates—Strickland’s 17.2 Player Efficiency Rating widely outpaces Paige’s 9.2. For perspective, last season Marshall earned an identical 17.2 PER while Drew suffered through a 10.2 during his abbreviated junior season in 2011.

Win Share numbers, which estimate the number of victories a player contributes to his team’s cause, tell a similar story. Strickland’s 0.7 doesn’t inspire and is lower than his 1.9 last year, but he still outflanks Paige’s 0.4. (Marshall enjoyed a strong 4.7 last year, while All-American big man Tyler Zeller racked up an 8.9.)

I’ve pulled these numbers from SportsReference.com. Without becoming any wonkier or needing to excuse myself for whipping something out, the site produces and explains numerous other measures intended to bestow one with superiority to one’s friends.

Strickland’s ineffectiveness at the wing further complicates the issue. Because he’s a non-shooter, pairing him with Paige in the backcourt has hurt the offense. Carolina’s most potent scoring lineups have included more time for Leslie McDonald or P.J. Hairston on the wing, either who can combine with Reggie Bullock to give the Heels two viable shooting threats.

To sum, the team performs better with Strickland at point guard and with a non-Strickland at shooting guard.

Where does that leave Paige?

For one, conference play hasn’t yet begun. Many freshmen require a couple months to become acclimated, and Paige certainly has enjoyed some fine moments that showcase his ability and long-term potential.

I’m bearish on Paige at point guard for the remainder of this season, however, because I think his lack of weight will hurt him immensely until he’s able to focus on gaining size during the offseason. Not only that, this team has proved so fragile against major competition that it can’t afford an extended slump to open the conference schedule.

UNC’s non-conference record appears fine at 7-2, but the Tar Heels still do not hold a quality win. In the ACC’s expanded, 18-game schedule, they likely must win 10 or possibly even 11 games to ensure an NCAA Tournament berth. The conference has improved over a year ago, and UNC will face heavyweights Duke and N.C. State on a combined four occasions.

Thus, Williams may need to consider lineup changes more urgently. He ultimately may start Strickland at point guard or at least increase his minutes there, cut Paige’s, and open more time for other wings to bring greater firepower to the lineup.

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Through nine games, a frank assessment must conclude that Marcus Paige has fallen short. He'll have at least 20 more games to improve, but Dexter Strickland clearly has performed better in his backup point guard role than Paige has as starter.

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