CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Marcus Paige came to Chapel Hill a year ago a scrawny, 157-pound point guard, which, as he put it, “is ridiculous for a college athlete.” And being thrust into the starting role at a program like North Carolina as a freshman, that disadvantage didn’t help, either.
Even in high school, Paige said he was usually lighter than his opponents. But college, of course, is a completely different level.
“Even back in high school, I wasn’t the heaviest guy on the court. But it really made a difference in college when strength is a key part of the game. The refs let you play more. It’s a lot more physical,” Paige said. “Also when you take a pounding as a smaller guy, you get tired quicker. I saw that in (the Maui Invitational). I was getting fatigued really fast, just from all the physicality of the game.”
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He recalled going up against UNLV’s Anthony Marshall (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) in December as his first real taste of that. And there were plenty of big ACC point guards, particularly a 6-foot-6 Lorenzo Brown from N.C. State, that gave him trouble.
He got used to it as the season went along. But once the season ended, he knew he was going to have to make a change. So, under the guidance of UNC strength and conditioning coordinator Jonas Sahratian, he’s on a fairly steady weight gain, already up to 171 pounds.
“By the end of the summer, I wanted to be 175. It’s not like a weight that if I don’t get, I’m going to be disappointed with. It’s just kind of like a random number to have something to work forward to,” Paige said. “But I’m not really focused on playing at a certain weight or anything. I just want to be able to be stronger, have a stronger base so I can get through screens or just not get fatigued so easily.”
He’s eating six times a day, and Sahratian has Paige on a weight-lifting regimen that is increasing his explosiveness. Eating six times a day is easier said than done, of course, but it’s been easier for Paige now that he’s seeing the results.
“I feel more explosive. I feel stronger. I can fight and use the armbar more effectively,” he said. “A lot of that stuff translates to the court pretty well.”
Paige has noticed these improvements during off-season pickup games, which are famous around Chapel Hill. Plenty of prominent alumni come back to town to both get some work in and teach the current players a thing or two.
Paige has plenty of former point guards to learn from in UNC’s history, and he’s already taken off-season lessons from Kendall Marshall and Raymond Felton. Both are certainly bulkier point guards, so Paige was even able to see the benefits of his added weight against NBA-level competition.
Felton brought his trainer with him, and Paige said the workout with Felton was the hardest workout of his life.
Both had advice for Paige on and off the court.
“A lot of teaching points from (Felton) and his trainer, just about little things like changing levels on your drives and being strong when you go up to finish,” Paige said. “(Marshall) was talking to me about leading, and (Felton) was talking to me about how it’s my turn to be more aggressive and show people what I can do. Just confidence-boosting things during workouts and after workouts. They’re little things, but they mean a lot to me.”
It’s not easy to be a freshman point guard at UNC, and it showed at times early in the season for Paige, especially because he didn’t have the benefit of learning from an older mentor. By the end of the season, though, a lot of the qualities head coach Roy Williams liked so much about him started to shine through. His 3-point shot started to fall, and he started to want the ball in his hands in big moments.
“I made a couple shots last year that people were like, ‘No no no no!’ and then I made the shot,” Paige said, laughing. “As my confidence (grew), I didn’t have a problem taking those shots. But now, I think it’s more of a commanding role for me next year is to be able to have the ball and want the ball and demand the ball in those situations so that I can make a play, rather than just ending up with the ball and taking a shot that people were screaming at me for until it goes in.”
Adding weight is not the only thing he’s doing this summer, either.
Teammate James Michael McAdoo said that he has added a floater to his game — “I’m small, so I’ve got to be able to have that,” Paige said — and he’s trying to do something that often takes UNC point guards years to do: Become a coach on the floor.
When he is able to fully inhabit that role, he’ll be a team leader by default.
Leadership has always come relatively easy to Paige, and that was clear as he grew comfortable last season.
“In high school … I grew into a vocal leader as I got more comfortable in my situation. I think that’s the same thing that’s going to happen here as I get more comfortable. Last year was big in that,” Paige said. “Now that I’m more comfortable in my situation, I can expand my role as a leader and get on guys vocally and hopefully have their trust that what I’m saying is in their best interests, trying to help them.”