You can make the argument that Marcus Paige is more important to his team than any player in the country. Consider that, last season, Paige hit 94 three-pointers while the rest of UNC combined to make 90. He also led the team in scoring, assists, steals and made free throws, all during a year he was battling nagging injures most of the time.
Paige has missed North Carolina's first six games this season with a broken right hand. The Tar Heels, who began the year tied at No. 1 in the polls, have slipped up once on the road to Northern Iowa, but it could be worse. Specifically: UNC was on the ropes last against Kansas State, trailing 67-59 with 4:24 to play.
The Tar Heels closed on a 21-3 run to grab victory from the jaws of defeat, thanks in part to the stellar play of sophomore forward Justin Jackson. Jackson tied the game on a nifty stop-and-go jumper and finished the night with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds on 8-of-13 shooting from the floor.
This is becoming par for the course. After a slow start, Jackson is on fire over the last three games:
Justin Jackson’s last 3 games: 22.7 pts, 58% FG, 43% 3FG, 7.3 reb, 4.3 ast— InsideCarolina (@InsideCarolina) November 25, 2015
It's easy to point to Jackson's improved shooting from three over this stretch for a UNC team that badly needs it without Paige, but he's also showing a more diverse game this season. With Paige out, Jackson is getting a bigger opportunity to facilitate the offense, and he's showing great vision and improved passing ability:
Jackson's also playing with a non-stop motor. Here, he beats the entire K-State team down the floor for two easy points. That's the type of work ethic a team needs from its emerging star:
Jackson was ranked as high as No. 8 in recruiting rankings in the class of 2014, entering Chapel Hill as part of a trio of McDonald's All-Americans along with Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II. He was productive as a freshman, averaging 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Now his numbers are up across the board in his second season of college basketball and that could mean big things for the Tar Heels once Paige gets back in the lineup.
UNC gets a little break for Thanksgiving, but their next game is going to be a big one: at home against No. 2 Maryland on Dec. 1. Paige should be back, and that could give the Tar Heels one of the most dynamic 1-2 punches in the country. If Jackson keeps playing like this, UNC has the second perimeter scorer it desperately needed to complement Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson on the inside.
That should sound like a scary proposition for the rest of the country.