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It’s time to change the conversation about Theo Pinson

The words used to describe the guard’s first three years no longer fit in his senior season

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be honest: nobody really saw this year coming from Theo Pinson.

He was a much-heralded five-star recruit, but even his high school mixtapes sent perhaps not a death knell, but at least one of relative struggle: “Versatile Wing is Headed to North Carolina!” This might not be a universal truth, but if the best thing your HoopMixtapes(TM) can say about you as one of the supposed best players in the country playing with average high school players is that you’re “versatile,” and not, say, “dominant” or “taking over,” you may not be the same caliber of player among your peers that you were in high school. It’s no disrespect to Pinson, who’s had an excellent college career, to say that he has among the least win shares of the top-20 recruits of the 2014 class (per 247Sports’s Composite, he was #15), and he is the only member of that group to have stayed until his senior year (again, not a knock on him, just a statement that he’s had more time to collect win shares). Compared to his incoming hype, Pinson has been underwhelming. A good player, don’t get me wrong, but underwhelming.

We all know the various words that have been used to describe Pinson as a player: “spark off the bench,” “does all the little things,” “does a little bit of everything,” “effect goes beyond the box score,” “energy guy,” “glue guy,” all sorts of phrases meant to excuse a lack of stat-sheet production from a guy who had a reputation for absolutely stuffing the stat sheet. Not that any of those things are untrue; it just would’ve been nice to see more tangible production alongside the energy and intensity that Theo brings to the court.

To be fair, Pinson has also had an injury-marred career; his sophomore year was the only one where he was able to play every game of the season. Still, it always seemed that even as a jack of all trades, master of none-type player, Pinson’s performance was a little bit short of what it could be. This year, all that’s changed.

On Saturday night, Pinson scored in double figures for the third straight game for the second time in his career (and second time this season) and his 4th time in 6 games, his first such stretch as a Tar Heel. Part of this is due to increased opportunity; he’s averaging a career-high 28 minutes per game. His per-40 scoring average of 12.5 points per 40 minutes is a career high, but not extremely removed from last year’s 10.2. His other per-40 averages are similarly slightly improved: 8.7 rebounds per 40 compared to 7.6 last year (and 9.6 his freshman year!), and 6.3 assists/40 versus 6.2 last year. His efficiency metrics follow suit with slight increases across the board. Keeping up that efficiency at higher volume is not insignificant, but even more significant is Pinson’s newfound consistency. Pinson has not yet had a scoreless game this season, and while there is still time, the combination of his confident play the past few games and his excellent free throw shooting make this unlikely to change. Establishing himself as an offensive threat like he never has before has made the team around him much better than any other intangible that he brought, and this is a big reason that the team is ticking as well as it has been in the month of February.

But consistency doesn’t stop there. In his first three years as a Tar Heel, in 85 games, Pinson hit seven in any two of points, rebounds, and assists a total of six times. This year, in 28 games, he’s done the same thing 13 times! He has He hasn’t manged the near-mythical triple double yet, but he’s threatened it on numerous occasions, including his 11/9/7 line against Portland, 7/9/8 against Tennessee, and 8/7/6 against Wake Forest. Triple-doubles and 5x5’s used to be a distant hope for Pinson, and now they’re semi-regular possibilities. He’s taking over games like never before, including a heroic effort against NC State where he singlehandedly propelled the Heels to overtime before UNC fell short. He hit career highs in points (22) and rebounds (15) that game, and he’s had similar stretches in nearly every game since, where it seemed like he put the ball wherever he wanted in order to put teams away. That’s usually been by passing, as he has 29 assists on UNC’s current 5-game win streak, but he’s been doing everything really well during this stretch: averages of 10.4/8.0/5.8 are legitimate star numbers, the kind we’ve all wanted to see Pinson put up all along.

And that’s not even getting into how he’s sharing lead point guard duties with Joel Berry this year, not just as a distributor but as an initiator - he has played every position from 1 to 5 in some capacity or another this year, whether that be offensively or defensively. His value cannot be overstated this year, no matter how you look at him.

We’ve run articles here, as has every other publication, calling Pinson something along the lines of “the ultimate glue guy.” I think that now, in the home stretch of his final season, it’s time to acknowledge that’s selling him short this year. He’s become a real star on a very good team. No, he may not hit 1000 points. But he’s putting up the numbers all around that finally, totally justify being one of the best players in the country being called “versatile.” Now if only he could shoot... I kid, I kid. Pinson has been a steadying presence on a team with a lot of youth, and it’s past time to give him his due. Not just as a sparkplug, but as one of the team’s best players.