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UNC’s Theo Pinson expected to make season debut against NC State

Roy Williams on Theo Pinson's return to action

UNC basketball coach talks about the return of Theo Pinson after recovering from an injury.
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UNC basketball coach talks about the return of Theo Pinson after recovering from an injury.

Roy Williams was finishing up a press conference on Friday when Theo Pinson, the North Carolina junior wing forward, could be heard from down the hall, talking and making some noise. A door opened and Pinson barged in, and Williams shook his head and smiled.

Pinson had made a habit of this last March during the Tar Heels’ run to the Final Four. During the team’s press conferences before NCAA tournament games, he’d walk up on stage and interrupt the proceedings with a wide smile. Theo being Theo, his teammates said.

And here he was again on Friday, the day before UNC’s game against N.C. State. Pinson walked in barefoot, and Williams told him to put some shoes on.

“I changed my mind,” Williams said amid some laughs. “Theo is not playing tomorrow.”

Except he likely will, and for the first time since early last April. Pinson was expected to enter the Tar Heels’ starting lineup at the beginning of his junior season but about three weeks before the Nov. 11 season-opener against Tulane, he was diagnosed with a broken bone in his right foot.

He underwent surgery on Oct. 26 to repair his fifth metatarsal – the same bone he had broken twice before, once in high school and again during his freshman season at UNC, in his left foot. Since the surgery in October, Pinson hasn’t played.

That will change, at last, on Saturday, “unless he screws it up at practice,” Williams said dryly.

The return of the 6-foot-6 Pinson, who can play every position except center, gives Williams a luxury in lineup flexibility that he hasn’t yet had this season. It also means that UNC’s “energy guy,” as Pinson is known, will be providing that attribute on the court instead of from the bench.

The question, though, is how effective Pinson will be – and for how long. Williams said that Pinson’s minutes wouldn’t be limited on Saturday, that the approach to his playing time would be “the better you play, the more you play.”

Pinson, though, has only been going through full, up-and-down the court practices for about a week. He went through another week of lighter work during practices. After UNC’s 89-86 overtime victory against Clemson on Tuesday, Pinson said that if it’d been up to him, he’d have played in that game.

He said then that he hoped to play on Saturday against N.C. State. Now it appears his wait is over.

“He’s such an effective player, and he’s such a stat-sheet stuffer,” Williams said. “He does a lot of different things, and some of them are not positive. And so you’ve got to say, ‘OK, can I go with this and then understand that that’s game slippage, he hadn’t been in the games all year?’ …

“So it’s going to be by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of decision about how much to play him, and then I think he’ll be searching.”

Pinson’s return, in time, is expected to help the Tar Heels in a variety of ways. He’s considered the team’s most talented passer, one who can create scoring chances for others both on the perimeter and the interior. Among UNC’s perimeter players, he’s also the best rebounder.

Then there’s this: The Tar Heels didn’t lose last season when Pinson scored at least three points. It’s something of a wacky stat, as Williams might put it in his parlance, but another one that indicates Pinson’s importance to the Tar Heels. He does a lot of little things, and does them well.

“He brings facilitating,” Joel Berry, the junior point guard, said of Pinson. “He helps a lot with us on the defensive end. He’s long. He’s athletic. So with him being out on the court, and able to have him on the defensive side, I think that will help us a lot, on that end.”

Pinson has looked “all right” in practice, Berry said. He’s still recovering, in some respects, and still “trying to get his wind back.”

In some ways, though, it’s like he never left. Before tip-offs at home games, Pinson has continued to embrace his role as the team’s unofficial dancer – even while he wore a protective boot. And even while he couldn’t practice, he continued to spend a lot of time talking during practices.

Justin Jackson, the junior forward, thought about that earlier this week while he prepared to leave the visitors’ locker room at Clemson. Pinson sat to Jackson’s right, talking a little like he usually does.

“I’m ready for him to start playing,” Jackson said with a smile, “and not talking so much.”

After missing the first eight weeks of the season, Pinson is ready, too, at last.

The University of North Carolina's Theo Pinson surprises coach Roy Williams at the Sunday Final Four press conference in 2016.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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