Roy Williams hadn’t finalized his starting lineup back in mid-October, during the middle of North Carolina’s preseason practice, but he acknowledged on Wednesday that if UNC would have had to play a game on Oct. 16, Theo Pinson would have started.
That was the day Pinson suffered a broken bone in his right foot. The injury forced the 6-6 junior wing forward to miss the Tar Heels’ first 16 games. Pinson will play his sixth game of the season on Thursday, when UNC plays against Virginia Tech at the Smith Center.
He’ll continue to come off the bench. Given Pinson’s preseason status as a likely starter, though, might he enter the Tar Heels’ starting lineup at some point? The UNC coach said on Wednesday he hadn’t considered it – but he didn’t dismiss the thought, either.
“If it gets to the point that I say, OK, he’s playing significantly better than Kennedy or Isaiah or Justin or Kenny or Joel, then I would start thinking about it,” Roy Williams said, referencing UNC’s starting lineup. “I like having some guys coming off the bench that add.”
And Pinson adds. He is known as UNC’s “energy guy,” a versatile player whose wide, varied set of skills help the Tar Heels in a variety of ways. He can play just about every position. He’s a deft passer, a capable rebounder, a good defender and he can provide the occasional gravity-defying dunk.
Before the season began, Pinson seemed almost a sure-thing to become a full-time starter. With Pinson hurt, though, sophomore guard Kenny Williams entered the starting lineup instead, and he has clearly been the Tar Heels’ most improved player from a season ago.
Earlier in the season, Kenny Williams earned attention with his perimeter shooting. More recently, he has, like Pinson, received praise for helping the team in ways that often go unnoticed. He has earned UNC’s defensive player of the game award in three consecutive games. Roy Williams recently described him as the team’s best perimeter defender.
If Pinson were to enter the starting lineup, it’d likely be in Kenny Williams’ place. Roy Williams, though, sees no reason to make such a change: Pinson’s contributions off the bench have been valuable, and Kenny Williams has embraced his role as a do-everything defender and spot shooter.
“You know, if we’d have had to play a game that day, he would have been the starter,” Roy Williams said, referencing the day Pinson endured his injury. “But I don’t think that he had spent 42 practices as a starter and then gets injured. Because if that’s the case, then I always think that you shouldn’t take something away from him if they had earned it.”
Arguments can be made that both Pinson and Kenny Williams have earned the opportunity to start. Pinson earned that opportunity in the preseason, and perhaps in the months before when he prepared for the season. Kenny Williams, meanwhile, has earned it in the months since. For Roy Williams, it’s a good problem to have: two deserving players for one starting spot.
For now, at least, it appears likely that UNC’s starting lineup will remain unchanged.
“But I really hadn’t thought about it,” Roy Williams said. “Again, if (Pinson) continues (with) his play going up like that and somebody else’s starts going down, I’m not against changing it.”