To those looking in from the outside, a jersey number doesn’t seem like a big deal. To fans, it’s one of the single most important identifying factors for the sports they follow. When you mention basketball and the number 23, you most likely think of Michael Jordan (or LeBron James for the younger folks) throwing down devastating dunks. If you think of NASCAR and you say the numbers 3, 24, 43 or 48, you probably have visions of Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty, or Jimmie Johnson driving across your thoughts. In football, if you see a number 4 or 34, you will most likely picture Brett Favre or Walter Payton carving up the defense.
A number can also have a legacy by more than one player. North Carolina basketball has a great example. Multiple players have worn the number five over the years. Henrik Rodl, Jackie Manuel, Dexter Strickland, and Tony Bradley are some of the notables that we won’t mention. However, there are a few more players that are connected deeper than just the number. Let’s look at the point guards who have worn this number and how they pushed the legacy forward.
Running the point guard position at UNC takes a special talent and there have been quite a few of those special talents at the helm of the offense. It just so happens that some of the best point guards in North Carolina’s rich history have donned the number five; Jeff McInnis, Ed Cota, Tywon Lawson, Kendall Marshall, and Marcus Paige.
UNC’s legacy of dominant point guards wearing the number five starts back with Jeff McInnis. McInnis came to North Carolina in 1993 as a McDonald’s All-American. Over the one hundred games he played, he averaged 11 points on 45% shooting and four assists. McInnis’ peppers the UNC record book. He either holds the record or is very close to the top in many categories.
Giving up his final year of eligibility to go to the NBA, McInnis also gave up his number to incoming freshman Ed Cota. Also a McDonald’s All-American, Cota came to UNC in 1996 with hopes of bringing a national championship with Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, and Shammond Williams. Over his four-year career, Cota averaged just over nine points a game on 45% shooting. However, he wasn’t seen as a scorching scorer (unless he was unleashing the “Cota Floata” as my colleague Daniel Bayer recently reminisced on), but as a prolific passer. Whether it was his behind-the-back-fake-dribble passes to wide open teammates or his alley-oops to Carter or Jamison, Cota was a highlight reel waiting to happen. While he did not win a national championship in Chapel Hill, Cota was a member of three Final Four UNC squads.
Until 2006, the only player to wear the number five was Jackie Manuel. Although a phenomenal player in his own right, we will look to the next point guard; Tywon Lawson. Another McDonald’s All-American, Lawson came to UNC as a five-star point guard from Oak Hill Academy. With national championship aspirations as the member of a top-ranked recruiting class, Lawson lead the Tar Heels to an Elite 8 appearance as a freshman. His sophomore year was hampered by a nagging injury, making the decision to return for his junior season easier. As Lawson, Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, and Tyler Hansbrough all decided to return, they were the preseason favorites to win the championship. That prediction held true as they defeated Michigan State in the final game. Arguably, one of his greatest highlights was the buzzer-beater against Florida State in 2009.
Lawson would forgo his senior season to head to the NBA. Dexter Strickland would take over, but only for a year as the number was then deferred to the next guy on our list; Kendall Marshall. Marshall, another McDonald’s All-American was tagged as the best “passer/playmaker” of the 2010 class. It did not take long for him to show it. With smooth passes and a silky shot, Marshall lead two UNC teams to the brink of greatness. Injuries plagued the 2011-2012 squad and ultimately ended their season. Marshall, however, will be remembered for his beautiful passes. When Marshall’s season was ended in 2012, social media took over and the “Pass Fir5t” movement was born.
Another McDonald’s All-American, (That makes five UNC point guards to wear number five who were McDonald’s All-Americans) Marcus Paige, would take the helm of the UNC squad after Marshall left for the green pastures of the NBA. Paige was the “do-it-all” point guard who could shoot, pass, penetrate and lead the fast break. What more could you ask for in a Roy Williams point guard? Paige lead the Heels for four seasons, leading UNC to a Sweet 16 and a Championship game appearance. Like the others listed above, his name is all over the record books. He sits atop the books for most three-pointers made at 299. He is third in steals, fourth in assist-turnover ratio, and fifth in free throw percentage. He will always be known for the “Double-Clutch” that tied the game against Villanova in 2016 before... (I won’t mention it. We all know what happened next…)
Finally, we catch back up to the present. Jalek Felton hopes to be the heir apparent of great point guards to wear the number five. However, he will have to wait his turn as he will defer that position to Joel Berry II. I do look for him to make an immediate impact as a combo-guard in the shooting and passing game as well as the fast break. He was recruited for his great court vision and awareness and his ability to finish at the rim. Time will tell.