Even the most casual observer of UNC basketball acknowledges North Carolina’s basketball history is littered with legendary point guards. Why, when, or how UNC became a de facto “Point Guard U” is open for debate, but the end results speak for themselves. More often than not, regardless of the coach or the decade, exceptional point guard play has become a regular expectation for the Tar Heels.
Maybe it began with second-team All-American Tommy Kearns on the undefeated 1957 NCAA champions. Or perhaps it started when Larry Brown stumbled upon the famed Four Corners offense in practice, only to have it later perfected by Phil Ford - who is often called the greatest point guard to ever play for North Carolina. Of course, less heralded point guards also found legendary success as Jimmy Black and Derrick Phelps helped pilot Dean Smith’s two NCAA title teams. And none of that mentions Kenny Smith, or my personal favorite, the increasingly marginalized Ed Cota. In fact Cota and oft-forgotten stalwart Dick Grubar are the only point guards to help lead UNC to three different Final Fours.
The Roy Williams Era
Roy Williams has taken the success and dependence on point guard play to a borderline absurd level since he returned to North Carolina. In his never-ending quest to increase the pace of the game, five different point guards have come to define his very best teams. All five of those primary ball handlers, Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Paige and Joel Berry II, possessed very different and distinct skill sets.
Three of those players, Felton, Lawson, and Marshall, won the Bob Cousy Award which is given annually to the nation’s best collegiate point guard. The award has only been around since 2003-2004, but UNC leads all schools with three awardees. Marcus Paige was announced as a finalist in his sophomore season, and Joel Berry was announced as a finalist this season. This kind of domination at one position is almost embarrassing. Almost.
North Carolina fans regularly debate who the best point guard in UNC history is, but as established above, there are so many options. In order to really do that argument justice — and not just do a lame list for cheap clicks — would require a multi-part series. Maybe one day we’ll get there. Today is not that day. Note: Don’t worry. I still rank these five at the very end).
Instead, we’ll explore the question which this article was intended to answer. Before the 2016-17 season, I suggested that Berry had a chance to enter the pantheon of all-time great UNC point guards. Mission Accomplished. Now we ask, where does he rank in this era of Tar Heel greats?
Before we continue, I acknowledge players stayed for different amounts of time so I wanted to avoid “career” totals. Longevity could be used to support (or hinder) a specific case, and if you want to look for the best “Tar Heel”, then that would make sense. I’m more interested in the best point guard. It is understandable if someone cannot, or does not want to, make that distinction.
Considering the changes in the recruiting landscape and UNC’s fight with the NCAA, all the PGs played with very different teammates. In order to set a baseline for expectations and put the rest of this analysis in context, here is a list of various teammates each point guard played with at UNC. The number of seasons they played together are in parenthesis. Players who were either drafted or played in the NBA are in italics. I added Stilman White because his story remains one of the most fun in recent UNC history.
Raymond Felton, 2003-2005: Sean May (3), Rashad McCants (3), Jawad Williams (3), Melvin Scott (3), Jackie Manuel (3), David Noel (3), Reyshawn Terry (2), Marvin Williams (1)
Ty Lawson, 2007-2009: Tyler Hansbrough (3), Wayne Ellington (3), Danny Green (3), Deon Thompson (3), Marcus Ginyard (2), Brandan Wright (1), Ed Davis (1), Larry Drew II (1)
Kendall Marshall, 2011-2012: Harrison Barnes (2), Tyler Zeller (2), John Henson (2), Dexter Strickland (2), Reggie Bullock (2), James Michael McAdoo (1), P.J. Hairston (1), Larry Drew II (1), Stilman White (1)
Marcus Paige, 2012-2016: Brice Johnson (4), Kennedy Meeks (3), Isaiah Hicks (3), J.P Tokoto (3) Justin Jackson (2), Theo Pinson (2) Joel Berry (2) James Michael McAdoo (2), Stilman White (2), Reggie Bullock (1), P.J. Hairston (1)
Joel Berry, 2014-2018: Theo Pinson (4), Justin Jackson (3), Kennedy Meeks (3), Isaiah Hicks (3), Luke Maye (3), Kenny Williams (3), Stilman White (3), Marcus Paige (2), Brice Johnson (2), J.P. Tokoto (1), Tony Bradley (1), Cameron Johnson (1)
Nobody is going to confuse the 2017 Redeem Team for the 2009 squad, who is the most dominant NCAA champion of this century (Sorry, Villanova.) However, don’t fall victim to thinking that a certain point guard was hindered or helped by the talent around them. It is more likely that certain teams were so successful because of the point guard, not the other way around.
The 2012 team, which had six future NBA players not including Kendall Marshall, is evidence of this. With Marshall sidelined with a broken wrist, the Heels could not defeat eventual runner-up Kansas in the Elite Eight. The 2004-05 loss at Santa Clara without Felton and the 2009 loss in the ACC Tournament without Lawson provide further proof that the surrounding talent did not mean a point guard was less valuable or important.
Felton and Lawson both played on championship teams that were similar in composition, so these two players are often lumped together. It’s not unreasonable to think that roles, responsibilities, and even skills of various players on the ‘05 and ‘09 title teams are interchangeable. Both teams would still be considered title contenders if you swapped Hansbrough for May or Green for Scott. (If we’re being honest with ourselves, had Marshall reached the promised land, the same might be said for that 2012 team.)
By comparison, Berry and Paige had very different paths than those previous teams. Both players dealt with unexpected early departures of teammates (Bullock, Hairston, Tokoto, and Bradley) and both stayed four years during the most challenging time in UNC’s history. Yes, even more challenging than the Matt Doherty years. Their cases are even more unusual because their time overlapped with each other.
Yet, Berry still played with three first round NBA draft picks and four All-Americans. Paige suited up with four first round selections and two All-Americans, not including his own selection as a sophomore. That also does not count Maye and Berry’s 2018 honors, since they had not earned those accolades when Paige played. Regardless, there was still plenty of talent in Chapel Hill.
The most beloved Tar Heels are often players who found a way to win at the highest levels while making contributions that show up in the box score. That has stayed consistent over the past 14 years. Below is a chart that shows some basic stats that focuses on win totals and per game averages for their entire career.
Roy’s Point Guards - Wins and Per Game Stats
|Player||Games||Games Started||MPG||Record||Winning%||Total WS||PPG||RPG||APG||STL||TO|
|Player||Games||Games Started||MPG||Record||Winning%||Total WS||PPG||RPG||APG||STL||TO|
No one player dominated any statistical category, and a few have caveats to explain why they weren’t even more successful. Felton’s freshman season was under Matt Doherty’s system and part of UNC’s rebuilding years. Marshall didn’t emerge until halfway through his freshman season, and then left for the NBA after his sophomore year. Berry effectively served as Paige’s sidekick through his first two seasons. Paige was forced to turn into being the first true lead guard in Roy’s system after Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston unexpectedly did not return for the 2013-2014 season.
Pick whatever metric you want, and you’ll find evidence to support an argument for any of these point guards the “best”. Joel Berry played in the most games, recorded the most wins, and committed the fewest turnovers per game, but Ty Lawson had the highest winning percentage. Marcus Paige started the most games, averaged the most points, and had the highest amount of win shares, but Kendall Marshall’s eight assists per game are unmatched, as was his A:TO at just over 3:1. Felton was the best rebounder and forced the most steals, but was the most turnover prone.
The point guard is supposed to be the engine that runs the team. They don’t have to be the most prolific scorer, but if they can maintain efficiency from the floor and/or facilitate their teammates getting buckets, then success generally follows. The following table breaks down each player’s individual shooting percentages. The assist, turnover and overall usage rates are per 100 possessions. This can admittedly be messy due to different supporting casts and rule changes that affected offenses in the last 15 years, but it’s what we have at the moment.
Offensive Production of Roy’s PG’s
It’s clear that Ty Lawson was the most efficient offensive point guard. There are likely a few reasons for this, but the easiest answer is he was just that good. His speed and ability to change direction to get to the rim resulted in the highest free throw rate (FT attempts per FG attempt). This also meant he was the least likely to rely on the three-point shot, where he still shot 40.3%.
For his part, Joel Berry measures up admirably, and his numbers might most closely resemble Raymond Felton’s. Felton was a better distributor, but not near as secure with the ball. Their shooting percentages, with the exception of Berry’s superior free throw prowess, are almost identical. Anyone with an affinity for an old-school, pass-first point guard (like me!) should be pleased to see that Marshall’s efficiency from the floor rivaled Berry (I am!), even if his overall usage trailed everyone else by a wide margin.
Berry also has the highest usage as he shouldered more of the offensive burden with each passing year. Though I didn’t break down individual seasons, Berry is the only point guard to see an increase in offensive usage in each consecutive season of his UNC career. That coincided with a decreasing usage rate for Paige as they began sharing the court. If there is one glaring difference in Berry (and Paige) from the others, it is their reliance on three-pointers led to a lower free throw rate. That’s an acceptable trade off for some.
The final piece of information to consider, are some individual and team accolades.
Raymond Felton: 2003 ACC All-Rookie team, 2x Third-team All-ACC (‘03,’04), 1x First-team All-ACC (‘05), Third-team All-American (‘05), 2005 Bob Cousy Award, 2005 ACC Regular Season Champion, 2005 National Champion
Ty Lawson: 2007 ACC All-freshman team, 2009 First-team All-ACC, 2009 ACC Player of the Year, 2009 Bob Cousy Award, 2009 Consensus Second-team All-American, 3x ACC Regular Season Champion (07-09), 2x ACC Tournament Champion (07-08), 2x Final Fours (08-09), 2009 NCAA Champion
Kendall Marshall: 2011 ACC All-freshman team, 2011 Third-team All-ACC, 2012 Second team All-ACC, 2012 Third-team All-American, 2012 Bob Cousy Award, 2x ACC Regular Season Champion (11-12), 2x Elite Eights (11-12)
Marcus Paige: 2013 ACC All-freshman team, 2014 Second-team All-American, 2014 First-team All-ACC, 2015 Third-team, 2016 ACC Regular Season Champion, 2016 ACC Tournament Champion, 2015 Sweet 16, 2016 Final Four, 2016 NCAA Runner-up
Joel Berry: 2016 ACC Tournament MVP, 2017 Second-team All-ACC, 2017 NCAA Tournament MOP, 2018 First-team All-ACC, 2018 Third-team All-American, 2016 ACC Tournament Champion, 2x ACC Regular Season Champion (17-18), 2015 Sweet 16, 2x Final Fours (16-17), 2016 NCAA Runner-up, 2017 NCAA Champion
Of the five players listed, everyone has a favorite. I’m partial to pass-first point guards, because an offense just runs more smoothly when the ball handler isn’t a single point of failure for scpring. This means Kendall Marshall is my personal favorite. That doesn’t mean I think he was the best. That’s what makes this exercise so fun and difficult.
#1. Ty Lawson
From a strict analysis of the numbers, it’s hard not to list Ty Lawson at the top of the point guard totem pole. Whether it was individual stats or team accomplishment, his UNC teams absolutely dominated the competition. He had the perfect balance of facilitating, finishing, and shooting from deep that kept defenses guessing. There’s probably an argument to be made that he only trails Phil Ford in UNC lore.
#2. Raymond Felton
Anyone after Lawson has a compelling case for the second spot - especially Berry. I’ll still ride with Felton here, for one major reason — with the Heels coming off a 8-20 season prior to his freshman season, he was equally as loyal in 2002 as Berry and Paige were in 2012 and 2014 (Just because this isn’t a ranking of “Best Tar Heel” doesn’t mean it can’t be a tiebreaker). Then he endured a coaching change, and found a way to co-exist with Rashad McCants. That 2005 season could have ended very differently with any other point guard running the show.
#3. Joel Berry
This is his rightful place among the Roy Williams point guards. The most prolific scorer of the bunch and least likely to turn the ball over, he definitely is a worthy rival to anyone on this list. His late game heroics and big plays will remain part of his legacy. However, there are a few chinks in his armor.
He lacked the speed of Lawson and Felton, and only Marshall had more difficulty creating his own shot without help from a ball screen or assist. And, though he was a starter on the 2016 Final Four team, that squad truly belonged to Marcus Paige. Perhaps a deeper NCAA tournament run this season could have bumped him up a spot. Another Final Four would have had him eye-to-eye with Lawson.
#4. Kendall Marshall
Yes, he only played two seasons. No, he never made the Final Four. I don’t care, because we know why and who to blame. The biggest knock on Marshall was often his defense and his lack of scoring. As we showed, he was perfectly capable of scoring. His passing ability to facilitate overshadowed his shooting efficiency, and by averaging EIGHT ASSISTS PER GAME, he didn't have to hunt his shot. Oh, he also had a better defensive rating (98.3) than Berry (102.9) and Paige (102.4).
Note: Some advanced stats for teams before 2010 do not exist yet.
#5. Marcus Paige
If you disagree, that’s fine. I’d expect most of you reading this would swap him with Marshall. I get it.
He was the unquestioned leader for four years, and was often the team’s only reliable offense during his first two seasons. He was consistently the best Tar Heel during the years that he played. Marcus was the perfect player for the program during a time when UNC needed a hero on and off the court. He remains loved and adored in a way few (any?) Tar Heels ever have been. However, in an effort to remove the emotion away from the argument, the competition and accomplishment of his peers are too much to overcome.
And with that, this research project is complete. If you powered through this on Masters Saturday, thank you and bless your heart. If there are any questions about what the statistical categories mean, ask away in the comments. All stats for this article came from sport-reference.com. I look forward to the inevitable disagreements, with factually based arguments about where I got this wrong. You know, just like the internet was intended to be used.