Sports

Theo Pinson likes playing big when UNC goes small

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, left, and UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton fight for the ball during UNC’s 89-76 win over the Bruins on Dec. 19. Pinson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, played power forward during the game when the Tar Heels went small.
North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, left, and UCLA’s Isaac Hamilton fight for the ball during UNC’s 89-76 win over the Bruins on Dec. 19. Pinson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, played power forward during the game when the Tar Heels went small. AP

Theo Pinson, the 6-foot-5 North Carolina sophomore, knows he “might not be the biggest guy,” as he said on Saturday after the Tar Heels’ 89-76 victory against UCLA at the Barclays Center in the CBS Sports Classic.

Yet even so, he liked the circumstances he found himself in at times on Saturday, matched up with a bigger player at the power forward position. UNC coach Roy Williams went small in moments on Saturday, and Pinson had an opportunity to play big.

He savored the chance.

“I like physical games,” said Pinson, who estimated that he played about seven of his 19 minutes on Saturday at power forward. “What better feeling can you have, being a guard, and you’ve got a four-man guarding you? That just opens it up for everybody else.

“And I can set a pick, pop, if the big is late I can take it to the basket.”

Pinson’s versatility has never been in doubt but he’s proving himself early in his sophomore season. He began the season as UNC’s starter at shooting guard amid an injury to Marcus Paige, who has since returned to start in that spot.

Now, with junior forward Kennedy Meeks out while he recovers from a bruised bone in his knee, Pinson is seeing some time in the Tar Heels’ frontcourt. Pinson’s role hasn’t changed, necessarily. He’s still expected to do what he’s best at: defend, rebound, penetrate, shoot when he has the chance.

But his positioning on the court changes when UNC goes small and he’s the power forward. All of a sudden he finds himself with a bigger guy guarding him – a significant advantage on offense, Pinson said, although it does come with some defensive challenges.

“Defensively, we just have a whole lot of traps and stuff,” Pinson said of what UNC uses to help mitigate the size disadvantage of a smaller lineup. “Certain things that Joel (James) can’t get to, I can get to because I’m a little bit more quicker.

“It brings another dimension to the team – it can make us very dangerous.”

Pinson at power forward isn’t likely to become a primary part of Williams’ long-term strategy. But with Meeks out, it gives Williams some options.

Williams is likely to have a chance to experiment with his lineups and rotations on Monday night when UNC hosts Appalachian State, which, according to the rankings at kenpom.com, is the worst team on the Tar Heels’ schedule. UNC likely won’t face much more of a challenge on Dec. 28 against UNC-Greensboro.

Games against over-matched competition offer few lessons when it comes to some things – like handling tense situations, or defending superior competition. But they do offer a chance for rotations to come together, and for players to adapt to new roles.

And those games could help UNC build confidence and familiarity when it goes small. When the Tar Heels do, they’re quicker and more difficult to guard. Williams on Saturday put Pinson at power forward instead of Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, because of Pinson’s quickness.

“Theo’s got a little quicker feet and more ability to get around and front the post if there is somebody posting him up,” Williams said. “And it really doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of difference.”

The Tar Heels’ small lineup makes a difference overall, though, in that they become a different offensive team. When UNC uses a more traditional lineup, the interior is occupied by bigger players, whether it’s Meeks and Brice Johnson, Johnson and James or any combination of the two.

With one big man and four smaller players, though, there’s space and freedom – for Johnson, too. That’s one reason why he scored a career-high 27 points on Saturday.

“With (Meeks’) absence, we’ll see more lineups where Theo or Justin is playing the four and that leaves a lot of spacing,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “And we’ll use our perimeter guys to attack that spacing and Brice gets pretty much to roam where ever he wants, which is a scary thing for a lot of other teams.”

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