By R.L. Bynum
Recruiting can take crazy and sometimes unexpected turns.
Paulina Paris, the only freshman on UNC’s women’s basketball team, wore No. 23 in high school because she is a big Michael Jordan fan, making Carolina a natural destination. But the four-star 5–9 guard’s route to becoming a Tar Heel — which nearly led to N.C. State — was circuitous.
“She’s better than many other players that are in this league,” said fourth-year Carolina coach Courtney Banghart. That’s significant praise considering the level of play in the highly competitive ACC. “She’s a very good basketball player, and we’re glad she’s here.”
Carolina fans get their first look at Paris at 7:30 Friday during Live Action with Carolina Basketball (ACC Network Extra/ESPN3) at the Smith Center.
Paris’ talent was evident to Banghart, but it didn’t look like she’d be able to coach her. During the pandemic, when recruits couldn’t visit schools, the star from Congers, N.Y. (about 30 miles from Manhattan), initially committed to Penn State.
Nearly three months later, in late July 2021, Banghart was scrolling through her phone when a tweet caught her attention. Paris, realizing she could now visit schools, tweeted that she was reopening her recruitment because she wanted to take advantage of that change.
Like when Paris sees a chance to thread a pass to an open shooter or a driving teammate, Banghart seized her opportunity. Banghart’s direct message, the first from another college coach after that tweet, was as effective.
“She was in my DMs three minutes after I posted that I was decommitted,” said Paris, whom ESPN ranked 27th overall and as the No. 7 point guard in the Class of 2022. “From there, I just made my visits, and this one was my favorite.”
Banghart joked that that social media sequence might show that she’s on her phone too much. But that set into motion yet another recruit picking the Tar Heels after considering UConn despite not living far away from its campus. Class of 2023 star Ciera Toomey of Dunmore, Pa., also picked the Tar Heels over the Huskies.
“It was kind of a twist of fate that it happened,” Banghart said of Paris’ decision. “But I’m so glad it happened.”
The direct message simply said, “Hey, if you want to talk, I’m here.” Banghart didn’t know where it would go from there, but she knew that she respected Paris’ game and that the program needed her.
“We just started off with a phone call, and then I talked to her dad and mom and her coach,” Banghart said. “Just kind of started that process. I flew up to see her — all the things that then have to happen.”
But there’s more to Paris’ circuitous path to Chapel Hill. Yes, before committing to Penn State in April 2021, she nearly decided to wear the red of the rival Wolfpack.
“OK, funny story. Yes, I was actually going to go there,” Paris said of State, although she never visited the Raleigh campus. “I was, and then I didn’t. I was really close to committing there. But then I realized that it wasn’t the right fit.”
After reopening her recruiting process, Paris visited Penn State, Southern Cal, Indiana and Carolina. Meeting the UNC players made the choice easy when she visited the campus nearly a year ago.
“When I came on my visit, they were the reason why I committed here because they’re such a nice group of people, and I just felt like I would get to know them, and we’d be as close as we are. And we’re very close now that I’m here,” said Paris, who played her last two high school seasons just across the state border in New Jersey at Saddle River Day School.
After Paris came one win short of winning a state title her senior season, she could have easily decided to go to nearby UConn, where Final Four appearances and contending for national championships are routine.
“I never really wanted to go there,” said Paris, who listed UConn along with UNC, N.C. State and Duke among her final eight schools in early January 2021. “I kind of just put it there to put it there. It was a good school; it was a good look. But no. I don’t think I ever was going to go there.
“I would rather go somewhere where they’re not already a national championship team,” Paris said. “What we have right now is a potential national championship team, and I think we will [win one]. It will just feel better to win it here than it would to win there.”
Paris is wearing a No. 23 blue Carolina jersey in her Twitter background image. She donned a No. 23 white UNC jersey in the video she tweeted to announce her commitment to Carolina. But she had to settle for No. 2 at UNC because No. 23 is retired for Charlotte Smith, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the 1994 national championship game.
If Paris has anything to do with it, Carolina will soon capture a second title.
Potential emerges at young age
Her dad Bryan Paris, who played at the University of Turado and professionally in Puerto Rico, first recognized Paulina’s basketball potential when she was a sixth-grader playing on his AAU team.
Playing with her older sister, who was in ninth grade, Paulina scored 30 points in a game.
“ ‘I can see that you want to be a basketball player,’ ” she remembers her dad telling her after that game. “ ‘You’re showing that you want to be a basketball player. So, we’re going to start working.’ He said to me, ‘I’m not going to train you like a girl. I’m going to train you like a basketball player, and that has just stuck with me since I started my basketball and since he said that.”
From then on, she said that her dad trained her just as he would train a boy. Paris said he’s had a significant influence on her career and is a big reason she’s been successful.
“He played a huge role,” she said of her 5–10 dad, now 42, who was a point guard. “I’d wake up every morning, and I would just go to the gym. He would take away time, and he had my siblings just take me to the gym. And I feel like he took such a sacrifice on me that was like, ‘you’re gonna be good.’ He knew I was going to be good, and he wanted to see me be good. He wanted to see me get to the level where he was at, but more. I’m really, really lucky to have him. I owe him a lot.”
Although Paris had to shoot a lot in high school, she considers herself a pass-first guard in addition to a scorer. Paris averaged 22.9 points and nearly three 3-pointers per game in leading Saddle River Day to a 25–2 record as a senior. She scored 34 points in the Bergen County championship game, 37 points (with four 3-pointers and four assists) in the state semifinals and 23 in the state championship game.
“She’s incredible. She really is,” Saddle River Day coach Danny Brown told nj.com after the semifinal win.
The UNC coaching staff has been impressed with Paris’ high basketball IQ.
“My ability to pass the ball is definitely the best part of my game, obviously also my quickness and scoring,” said Paris, who added that the most significant adjustment has been on defense since she says that wasn’t an emphasis in high school. “My team defense, it’s gotten a lot better since day one. And it’s actually exciting to see how much better my defense has got since I’ve been here.”
Don’t be fooled by her on-court demeanor, which she says can easily come off as very shy.
“I’m really not,” Paris said. “People don’t think that I speak a lot on the court, but I do. I’m a little bit feisty when it comes to basketball, but people don’t see that when they see me because I come off as a little 5–8 girl.”
She joins a veteran team with high expectations after going 25–7 and giving national champion South Carolina its toughest NCAA tournament test before falling to the Gamecocks in the Sweet 16.
Paris admits that being the only freshman on the team is “pretty weird.”
“When I first got here, it was a big adjustment,” she said. “And it was a little hard because I’m the only one who doesn’t know the place and the only one who doesn’t know the way that practice goes. But my teammates have helped a lot. And it’s been really cool. So, I think there’s an upside and a little bit of a downside, but it’s actually really cool being the only freshman.”
Paris has no teammates the same age who are going through the same experience of learning the life of being a college athlete on and off the court. But guard Eva Hodgson, in her second year of graduate school and four years older, has helped her adjust.
“She’s the oldest; I’m the youngest. So, I feel like she definitely helps me, and I definitely help her in a way,” Paris said. “It’s really good having her. Even when we’re in practice, she’ll be on the sideline with me. She’ll help me through the drills that I don’t know. So she’s been there for me since I’ve been here.”
Banghart said that at the top of the list of upsides is all of the attention Paris gets.
“Literally, that girl gets all the attention in the world,” Banghart said. “She has all four coaches’ eyes.”
Read about the humble beginnings of the Carolina women’s basketball programs, from coaches driving teams to games to playing and practicing in a dangerously gym, the program has come a long way. Learn interesting stories about the program in this Tar Heel Tribune story.
The downside would be if she tried unfairly comparing her performances to teammates with much more experience.
“She doesn’t have anybody to compare to, and therefore, we’re not worried about what the trajectory could or might be,” Banghart said. “We’re worried about what it is. And our staff is fully invested in making sure that she’s where she needs to be when it’s time to play.”
Although she was a point guard in high school, Paris and Banghart describe her as a combo guard. That’s a role Banghart wants for her guards because those are the skills WNBA teams seek. With Sue Bird’s retirement, she points out that Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot may be the WNBA’s only true point guard.
“Offensively, she’s got an incredible comfort with the game; she understands. The pace and strength of the game take time for everybody to get used to,” said Banghart, recalling the marked improvement of junior starters Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Alyssa Ustby between their freshman and sophomore seasons. “The version of Paulina will be better next month and the month after that, and the month after that.”
Paris is, of course, looking forward to the basketball season, but she also highly anticipates the fifth and final season of the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” She has watched all of the first four seasons nine times.
Like many fans worldwide, she can’t get enough of the series created by the Duffer brothers, who grew up in Durham.
But nine times?
“I watched it the first time, and I was like, OK. But then I still was a little confused,” Paris said. “I watched it a second time. Still, a few things that weren’t clicking, so I watched it a third. I finally understood it my fourth time. And then I would just watch it with friends. And then I would just watch it on my own again because the show is really good. I just absolutely loved it.”
Paris may not have the sort of power as the fictional character Eleven in Hawkins, Ind. But she certainly has the sort of on-court powers to potentially make opponents feel like they’ve been sent to the Upside Down as her college career progresses.
Those are the sorts of episodes Tar Heels fans will want to rewatch. Maybe even nine times.
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications