After North Carolina dropped its ACC opener to Virginia, 61-52, on Jan. 6, Roy Williams challenged Paige and backcourt partner Dexter Strickland on the defensive end.
There was no joking involved, no ambiguous comments that left intent to be questioned. The point was succinct.
“If you don’t start getting better defensive grades, then I need to play somebody else.”
Paige, all 6-foot, 157 pounds of him, responded by winning the team’s defensive award in his next two games against Miami and Florida State.
“He has a good savvy about the game and understanding and seeing the big picture really well for a freshman,” Williams told reporters on Friday.
Paige claims that he’s yet to hit the proverbial freshman wall physically or mentally, although he does admit that he thought he was in good shape until the team traveled to Hawaii early in the season. Since then, however, he’s improved his conditioning to the point where he can play extended minutes more effectively.
Conditioning is one thing; packing on the pounds is completely different. There is no magic pill.
“It’s been a little bit more difficult with [bigger] guys,” Paige said. “My average weight deficit in the league is over 20 pounds, so it’s something you have to overcome. Getting through screens is a little more difficult, but you just have to put a little more extra effort into it.”
Williams noted that assistant coach Hubert Davis enrolled at North Carolina weighing 155 pounds and eventually played at 190-195 pounds. Assistant coach C.B. McGrath was 145 pounds when he arrived at Kansas and beefed up to 175 pounds by his sophomore season.
“It’s a negative for him, but you can’t snap your fingers and make him 190,” Williams said.
Paige has attempted to overcome the physical discrepancy with a mental approach.
“It’s mostly a toughness thing,” Paige said. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it, a better job of it throughout ACC play compared to the beginning of the year. Part of it is having teammates helping you out and letting you know when screens are coming so I don’t get smacked.”
Paige acknowledged that he’s been smacked a couple of times, saying, “It’s not a good feeling.”
North Carolina will play ACC-leading Miami on Saturday, a team that sets plenty of ball screens with 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward Julian Gamble and 6-foot-11, 292-pound center Reggie Johnson.
“Reggie Johnson didn’t play in the first Miami game, so I’m hoping I don’t get hit by too many screens by him [on Saturday],” Paige said. “He’s a big boy.”
Miami pulled away from UNC late in the first meeting with efficient dribble penetration and ball movement to create open looks for its perimeter scorers.
Paige will be tasked again to deliver a strong defensive performance as Hurricanes point guard Shane Larkin earned USBWA National Player of the Week honors last week after averaging 19.0 points in wins over Virginia Tech and N.C. State.