CHARLOTTE — Theo Pinson’s versatility will be more important to North Carolina this season, and he’ll play many roles. He just hopes he’s done with one particular off-the-court role he played a few days ago.
Pinson and one of the team’s managers beat Joel Berry in a video game, leading the senior point guard to punch a door in frustration. All Pinson would say at ACC Operation Basketball on Wednesday about Berry’s broken right hand was, “ask Joel.”
Pinson will be asked to play some at point guard along with sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton in the first few games while Berry recovers from that injury.
“Theo is the best playmaker, so why not give him a chance back there to see what he can do,” Coach Roy Williams said. “With the other guys, nobody has stepped up and said, ‘this is my spot.’ So, between Jalek, Seventh and possibly Theo, we’ll try to figure out who is the best.”
Pinson did register a fairly big assist — on Luke Maye’s game-winning jumper — against Kentucky in the South Regional final.
“He’s going to have to play one through four, maybe even sometimes Coach might put him at the five if we’re going to a late-in-the-game press offense, press defense kind of thing,” Maye said. “Just being so versatile, I think it gives our team a different dynamic.”
Pinson calls himself “a do-it-all type guy,” and that already was going to be important since Maye is the only experienced big man. There’s talent in the frontcourt in Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman. But they are both freshmen and are still learning the system.
Although Williams has never liked to go to a smaller lineup often, he has no problem playing Pinson, a senior, at the four spot when he decides to go that direction.
“It’s really big for me and Coach that Coach trusts me at playing the four and he won’t even hesitate to say, ‘Theo, look, you’re the four.’ That’s a big thing for me and him both,” Pinson said. “He understands the type of players he has. He understands that, and he trusts me playing at the four. If anybody plays the four [when going small], it’s going to be me.”
Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cameron Johnson is only playing at the wing in preseason practice as he tries to learn the Carolina system. He isn’t expected to be asked to play the four.
It became clear to Pinson one day in practice this week just how versatile he will have to be, particularly in the short term.
“I remember the other day on the practice plan when we found out Joel got hurt, I was a sub for the one, two, three and four,” said Pinson, who added that he’s absolutely comfortable at all four positions. But to be listed as the backup at all four positions? “I was like, ‘wow.’ That is wild, I’ve never seen that before. It was fun.”
There has been lots of offseason talk about the Tar Heels playing more “small ball” after they lost Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley off of the 2017 NCAA champions. Anybody who suggests this must also recognize that Williams always prefers to have two big men on the court at all times.
“I think we go more off the feel of the game,” Pinson said of when UNC will likely go small. “How everything’s going. How foul trouble is going. How are our bigs playing? How are our guards playing? It goes off advantages. Where do we have the advantage?”
Many Tar Heels last season talked about how much fun it was to play small ball. But with the different personnel this season and the challenges that playing small presents, does he enjoy going small?
“Enjoying it … is a stretch because playing a big for us is tiring,” Pinson said. “But, at the same time, I do what I have to do to win games. That’s what I do. I’m blessed to be in that situation where I’m able to play four positions. There’s way more heavy lifting for me. If we win at the end of the day, I’m fine with it.”
He found out only too well how going small can bring both success and personal challenges when the Tar Heels did that in a 96–83 victory against Florida State.
“I can’t believe we did it. Coach was like, ‘hey, we’re about to do something I haven’t done in 28 years,’ ” Pinson said. “I didn’t think, not in a million years, Coach would ever say, yeah, I’ll play five guards. It was crazy.”
The heavy lifting came when Pinson found himself guarding 7–1 Seminoles center Michael Ojo.
“It was weird. I was excited because if he scores on me, he’s supposed to score. I think he did one time because I flopped,” Pinson said. “That dude is huge. I’m glad he’s gone.”
Going small worked again in Carolina’s 77–76 national semifinal victory over Oregon when the Ducks’ Dylan Ennis got hot on his way to finishing with 18 points.
“Ennis was killing us, so he was just, ‘alright, let’s go small,’ ” Pinson said of Williams’ decision in that game. “We slowed them down a little bit, I started guarding him and then, at the same time, we still got the rebounds and stuff when it mattered. As long as we still do our jobs, we’ll be fine.”
The whole key to making small ball work in Williams’ mind is still being able to snag rebounds. That’s one reason he prefers to always have to big men on the court at all times.
“He told us that since day 1,” Pinson said. “He said, ‘hey, look, I’m telling you right now, if we go small you’re still going to have to go and rebound. I’m going to get rebounding some way.’ He’s stressing it every day. If we’re in there with a small-ball lineup, you have got to go rebound. If the two bigs aren’t rebounding, we’re going small ball and vice-versa. Whoever rebounds is going to play.”
Pinson is better equipped to mix it up with the big bodies inside after going from around 210 pounds last season to around 220 pounds this season because of his hard work in the weight room.
He had no intention of leaving UNC after his junior season but wanted to get feedback from NBA teams.
“I just wanted to see what they thought,” he said. “I wanted to put a full season together. I wanted to have a really great summer, come in and have a full season and show what I really can do.”
He’s taken heed after NBA people told him to become a better shooter. He spent many days in the offseason shooting from behind the NBA 3-point line on UNC’s practice court.
“I always shoot from there because, before, I didn’t know what position I was going to be going to the NBA. It’s helped me a lot as far as confidence-level,” he said. “My shot’s got a whole lot better. I’m confident I can knock them down. Hopefully I can do it in the games.”
Maye says that Pinson’s improved shot is apparent in practice.
“He’s worked a lot on his jump shot,” Maye said. “The coaches continue to preach throughout his four years, he needs to shoot better, he needs to shoot better. And I think it’s really hit home now that losing Justin [Jackson] and bringing in Cam [Johnson] in and really having that kind of competition in practice, he really shoots after practice. Shoots on off-days. He’s really worked hard about that.”
Not only does improving his shot increase his NBA stock, but proving his versatility on a nightly basis this season.
“Me being able to play one through four is really big, especially the way the league is going,” Pinson said. “It’s helping me out a lot, just trying to keep doing what I do best and making plays.”
Particularly when the Tar Heels go small, there’s one NBA player he wants to play like: Golden State’s 6-7, 230-pound forward Draymond Green.
“He’s one of those guys who just does it all,” Pinson said. “Gets the ball to the rim and makes plays. I like the way he plays, honestly. He plays with a grit and a grind that not a lot of people have. I like when people think they can go down there and bully him and that’s just not going to happen.”
The preseason already is going a lot better for Pinson after he fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot in late October before last season. Being healthy the entire offseason and into the preseason has made a huge difference for him.
It’s big, particularly considering he’ll have to play big this season.