With the latest wave of realignment in the rear-view mirror, the ACC has emerged as the preeminent power in college basketball. Not only does the conference still have its core of traditional basketball powers on Tobacco Road, they decimated the Big East in successive waves that included Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville. The biggest problem now is the huge surplus of teams (15) makes it harder for the smaller schools to pull themselves out of the pack in the same way as in a conference like the Big 12, where everyone gets a home-and-home against Kansas.

The sheer number of power schools, though, means that everyone in the conference is pushed to their limits, ala the SEC in football. If you have a weakness, it will be exposed, which can be great practice for the NCAA Tournament. A good example is what happened to Duke last season, when Coach K was forced to make a line-up switch after a slow start to ACC play and went four-out by sliding Justise Winslow to small-ball PF. Kentucky, in contrast, got away with starting the Harrison Twins all season in the SEC, even though neither shot higher than 40% from the field.

Steel sharpens steel and if you can play in the ACC you can play anywhere in the country. The NCAA is a PG’s game so the big story this season in the ACC should be the trio of upperclassmen PG’s with tons of experience and a legit shot at making the NBA, which is not a combination you see all that often. Marcus Paige (UNC), Demetrius Jackson (Notre Dame) and Anthony “Cat” Barber (NC State) are all playing their NBA lives and their teams will go as far as they take them this season.





PP (P+A)*


3p% (3PA)







39.5% (6.5)







42.9% (3.3)







38% (2.0)

*Points per possession (points + assist) in the half-court

- Marcus Paige

Paige is the elder statesman of the bunch, the rare McDonald’s All-American to stay all four seasons while playing at a huge role at a school like UNC. He has been on the fringes of draft discussion since his sophomore season but has never been quite been able to put it all together to get himself into the first round and now has to deal with the bias many NBA teams have towards college seniors. The question with Paige is how much he has been held back by a somewhat dysfunctional situation at UNC.

He has had to carry an insanely heavy load on the offensive side of the ball because Roy Williams has not recruited enough three-point shooting to keep up with the dynamic of the modern game. Paige was the only plus three-point shooter for the Tar Heels last season, which put him in a double bind. Not only did he not have a lot of driving lanes or space to attack the rim, defenders could swarm all over him when he did shoot from deep since they didn’t have to respect any of his teammates from the perimeter. You can see the problem in the number of assists Paige handed out to three-point shooters last season - 18% - in comparison to 48% for Barber and 40% for Jackson.

In terms of translating his game to the next level, the biggest question with Paige is his size and scrawny build, as he has never been able to put on a lot of weight in his time in Chapel Hill. With PG’s in the league getting bigger and bigger, it will be difficult for a guy with Paige’s frame to be able to hold up on as a full-time starter unless he’s an exceptional athlete who plays perfect positional defense.

As a senior on a team overflowing with high-school All-Americans and NBA prospects, Paige will be expected to put UNC on his back and carry them to the very top of the polls. The Tar Heels haven’t been to an Elite Eight since 2012, which counts as a prolonged slump for a program of that caliber. If Williams can recapture the magic of the Ray Felton and Ty Lawson teams with Paige at the helm, the senior PG could play his way into the first round. He has the shooting ability and the all-around offensive game to where he should be able to carve out a spot for himself as a backup PG but there’s so many of those guys coming into the league on an annual basis that a lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time.

- Demetrius Jackson

After serving as an understudy for Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant in his first two seasons in South Bend, it’s Jackson’s turn to take the reigns of Mike Brey’s offensive machine. In a stark contrast to UNC, where the offense has been hamstrung by a lack of three-point shooting, Brey’s teams run an NBA style spread pick-and-roll, with four three-point shooters around a big man (Zach Auguste) rolling to the rim. The game is really simple for the primary ball-handler in Brey’s offense, with Grant taking advantage of the acres of space to put together a first-team All-American season and get drafted in the first round as a fifth-year senior.

Jackson, the first McDonald’s All-American to come to Notre Dame since 2005, has all the tools to put together a similar season. While he doesn’t have Grant’s height, he’s faster, more athletic and more solidly built. He has the frame of a RB and he’s capable of exploding through traffic and finishing above the rim if given a lane to the basket. Just as important, he’s a well-rounded PG who can stroke the ball from 3, create his own shot off the bounce and distribute the ball.

With Grant and Pat Connaughton gone, Jackson will carry as big an offensive load as he can handle as a junior. If he can maintain his efficiency numbers while increasing his production as the primary option, which is easier said than done obviously, he could put himself in the discussion with Kris Dunn of Providence for the first upperclassmen PG off the board on draft night. The only real concern is his lack of ideal size and how he will be able to hold up defensively against super-sized PG’s like Grant and Dunn at the next level.

From a big picture perspective, one question I have with Jackson is how he would fare in a less wide-open NCAA system, one that isn’t perfectly suited to his talents and puts him in a lot more cramped spaces with fewer pick-and-rolls. I wonder that especially when watching Trey Burke in the NBA, where he has not been able to close to recapturing his incredible final season at Michigan, without the perfect spacing and ball movement that allowed John Beilein to spin his magic and turn a roster of relatively average recruits into NBA prospects.

- Anthony “Cat” Barber

Barber is the least heralded of the three ACC PG’s, he plays for the least accomplished of their respective coaches and he has the hardest hill to climb in terms of making it to the next level, as he’s the only one not currently on the DraftExpress 2016 mock. What he does have is a trump card, though, in the type of elite tool that can put a fringe prospect on the map. There’s a reason he’s called “Cat” - he’s as fast as any PG in the country and it’s virtually impossible for anyone, even potential NBA guys like Paige and Jackson, to stay in front of him. His speed will translate to any level of basketball.

Following the departure of TJ Warren to the NBA last season, Barber took a big jump as a sophomore in terms of the amount of responsibility he had in the NC State offense and he dramatically improved his three-point shooting, which will be crucial if he has any chance of playing in the NBA. He went from shooting 26% on 1.3 3PA’s a game to 38% on 2.0 3PA’s a game and he needs those numbers to continue going in a positive direction rather than regress.

What he still needs to improve as a junior is his decision-making and overall feel for the game. He has a tendency to hunt for his own shot and force at the action, which isn’t helped by the type of offense that Mark Gottfried runs. At 113, Barber had more than twice as many isolation possessions as Paige (57) and Jackson (57), a good sign that NC State as a whole wasn’t doing nearly as good a job of moving the ball and running good offense. Gottfried’s teams have been pretty inconsistent in comparison to the amount of talent on the roster - they were probably more talented than Villanova, whom they beat in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament, except they were the 8 seed and Nova was the No. 1 seed.

The big thing for Barber is leveraging his speed on the other end of the floor and becoming a ball-hawk who can force TO’s and change tempo. He often got the tougher defensive assignment on the perimeter, guarding Grant instead of Jackson when they lost an OT heartbreaker to Notre Dame last season. In a best-case scenario, Barber could turn himself into a Patrick Beverley type player, although of course Beverley had to grind his way through Europe before eventually getting a chance in the NBA.

Paige, Jackson and Barber all have the talent to play in the NBA but the difference between making it not at the next level, especially for guys 6’2 and under, is pretty slim. Since they are all veteran NCAA PG’s, NBA teams aren’t going to cut them any slack if their statistical production and team performance doesn’t clear a really high bar. So much of that, though, depends on things outside their control, whether it’s their coaches, their teammates or the state of their programs. If you really want to know what type of NBA potential they have, just watch what they do against each other, when they are matched 1-on-1 for all the marbles in ACC play this season.