Last week, my colleague Jake Lawrence explored the question of whether Theo Pinson’s foot injury might be a “blessing in disguise” for the Tar Heels. The idea was that it would allow the younger guys to get more playing time to develop their skills and chemistry with one another. I’m not a huge fan of this line of thinking; you want to play your best players when it’s game time.
In my opinion, one of the fallacies we all commit too often as sports fans is discounting the value of action that is not televised. For the purposes of building chemistry and adjusting to the speed of college basketball, I think that’s what practice is all about. There is value in what players do when the lights come on, but in my opinion, that’s more related to the mental aspect of the game—whether players can keep their cool with the lights shining and the crowd cheering (or booing), whether they can produce when they know that real results are on the line, etc. There are only 32 games in a season. That’s not a lot of time to work on chemistry.
This is why I’m approaching the problem of Pinson’s injury purely from the perspective of what can win the team the most games and earn them the highest possible seed come March. Lineup tinkering in games is for teams that aren’t performing up to par, and there is no reason to believe that will be the case for UNC this year. Without further ado, then, let’s explore UNC’s options to fill Pinson’s spot.
It makes things less complicated that the four starting spots other than shooting guard were virtually assured even before the injury. There is no reason to believe that any of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks would not be starting because they are all skilled upperclassmen who work well together. Hicks is the only question mark there, if only because it has not been confirmed that he can play starters’ minutes without fouling out, but he will almost assuredly start to begin the season.
The possibilities to start at the wing opposite Jackson are, essentially, Nate Britt, Seventh Woods, Kenny Williams, and Brandon Robinson. Each brings a unique facet to the UNC lineup, but how much can those facets positively impact the team, and how much could their limitations hurt it? Let’s start with Nate Britt:
Nate Britt might be UNC’s most underrated player of the last four years, if not more. It’s not his fault he’s been overshadowed by Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, and the memory of Kendall Marshall for his entire career as a UNC point guard, nor is it his fault that commentators choose to focus on his ambidextrous (or “amphibious,” as the case may be) shooting style instead of his blinding speed, pesky on-ball defense, ability to drive from all angles, or his career 80%+ free throw percentage while on teams that, for a majority of his college career, have been crippled by poor free throw shooting. He has accepted limited roles in the offense without complaint, always willing to put the team before himself, and has never gotten the credit he deserves for most of this. It might finally be his time to shine.
- Senior, familiar with Coach Roy’s offense.
- Adds a ballhandler to the starting 5, which helps the transition offense because the offense has to spend less time looking for a ballhandler on the break.
- Possibly the team’s best on-ball defender against point guards now that Paige is gone and Pinson is injured.
- Known quantity: Because we’ve seen him play for three years, we already know his strengths and limitations and the team won’t have to adjust for them midseason.
- Streaky shooter at best: His three-point shot was a potent weapon his sophomore season, but regressed to only 32% his junior year. This team is much deeper on the wings than in the post, so the more consistent the threat from outside, the better for the team.
- Positional fit: Britt, for all of his strengths, is not a very versatile player. Having him in the lineup basically necessitates that he runs the offense in the halfcourt and guards the opponent’s point guard on defense, which, with Joel Berry primed to take over the team, may not be optimal.
- Size/Strength: As a smaller player, there are aspects of the game that Britt struggles with. He is not great playing through contact or through screens, and this especially hurts him in his off-ball defense, where off-ball screens tend to leave him stranded far away from his man.
Kenny Williams is a bit of an enigma to Tar Heel fans, even after a year. He was recruited as a sharpshooter, but that label has been all but forgotten after a year in college. He only made one of his 13 attempts from beyond the arc, even though Kennedy Meeks told us that he never missed in practice. He instead made a name for himself with his defense and his gigantic arms:
Reports are that Williams has been one of the team’s best perimeter defenders as well as shooting well in practice, so he could be in line for more minutes than many fans thought.
- Potential shotmaker: I am far from the first person to suggest that UNC needs more three-point shooting after the loss of the most dominant post player in college basketball. If Williams starts to make the shots he used to miss, a la PJ Hairston in 2012, the offense becomes more potent, both scoring points from the outside and opening up the inside.
- Defense: Coach Roy trusted Kenny Williams’ defense enough as a freshman that he was comfortable putting him on Malcolm Brogdon when Marcus Paige needed rest. That speaks volumes to me about how highly he thinks of Williams’ ability, and it’s not unwarranted, as he’s played great defense whenever he’s been on the court. His height and strength, along with his defensive fundamentals, could be great assets to the team on the defensive end.
- Size: Williams doesn’t quite replicate Pinson’s size (6’6’’, 211 per GoHeels.com) at 6’4’’, 180, but he still offers strength and length that benefit team defense and team offense in addition to augmenting his individual skills, and make him able to guard multiple positions.
- Variability: Like I said, Williams is a bit of a mystery. While he has exciting attributes, his relative lack of on-field experience means that it could all be talk and he could end up not playing up to his potential.
- Unknown slashing/driving ability: Williams is known as a 3-and-D guy, which is a very important role, but the Carolina offense is too fluid to succeed with a player stuck on the outside. If Williams can’t produce inside the arc to complement his shooting, he may not fit very well with the rest of the team.
The other options to start are freshmen Brandon Robinson, shooting guard, and Seventh Woods, point guard. Because they’re freshmen, they are relative unknowns, although each does come into Chapel Hill with a bit of a reputation: Robinson is a shooter, kind of in the mold of Williams, and Woods is an athletic slasher, which means he would fill essentially the role that Britt would fill in the offense. Because of this, unless it’s shown that either is significantly better than the player they would replace, it’s unlikely that they would start over their older counterparts. Remember, Justin Jackson started as a rookie two years ago; this is NOT an issue of Coach Williams not giving freshmen enough playing time. It’s simply a matter of the players who have been here being less wild-cardy than the freshmen. That said, pros and cons of starting a freshman:
- Helps put to bed the stupid, stupid myth that Roy Williams somehow hates freshmen: Needs no explanation.
- Robinson is the closest the Heels can come to replicating Pinson’s height and length on the wing, which could come in handy if/when the Heels play smaller. He’s also a solid ballhandler, having played point guard for many years in his youth.
- Woods’ athleticism, if it hasn’t been compromised by injuries, is unmatched by any other guard that UNC has, and his explosiveness could make impact plays for the team. He’s the closest the team has to Pinson’s “sparkplug” nature.
- Physicality/Speed of the college game: Many freshmen take some time to get used to the college game, whether that manifests in the speed of decision-making or the physicality of the players. Robinson especially comes into college a little skinny for his size and position; his body might not be quite ready to play starters’ minutes in the NCAA yet.
- Again, Variability: The rookies have not seen a minute of college game action yet. We don’t know how they’ll respond to the bright lights or if their reputations might not follow them to the Dean Dome. If you have the luxury to roll freshmen in slowly without losing productivity, I think you do it.
It’s not likely that either of the rookies starts, for these reasons. I haven’t seen anything suggesting that either is playing out of his mind in practice, so the spot is likely to go to Britt or Williams.
In my opinion, trying to be objective, starting Kenny Williams to start the season is probably the best move, especially if he starts hitting shots. He can replace Pinson’s defense on the wing, which should be the #1 priority in this analysis, and he allows Coach Williams to play around with matchups and defensive arrangements, and hence his ability to confuse opposing offenses. I love Britt, I really do, but he does require an offense to build around him a little, and that works much better for a second unit than for a first.
That said, I believe that Nate Britt will start alongside Berry, Jackson, Hicks, and Meeks to start the season, and this is still not a bad thing; he’s a very talented player. There are still questions, though. Does Britt stay in the lineup after Pinson returns, allowing him to be an “energy guy” off the bench? Or might he be replaced in the starting lineup by one of Williams, Robinson or Woods even before Pinson returns as they get acclimated to the college game and Coach Williams needs a true point guard for the second unit? Share your thoughts below!