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UNC Basketball: Theo Pinson’s strange relationship with the three-point line

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A lot of people want the senior to stop shooting, but that might not be a sustainable solution for him

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Stanford
No, this isn’t actually a jump shot. I think.
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Theo Pinson is doing just about everything better this year than he had during his previous three years as a Tar Heel: his overall field goal percentage is at a career-high 47.2% (his 2-point field goal percentage is at 62.7% after a previous career high of 51.1%), his free throw percentage is over 72% for the first time, he has more than doubled his number of blocks per 40 minutes, and while his passing and rebounding efficiency numbers have stayed the same, his career-high 29 minutes per game have allowed him to post career high per-game numbers in assists and rebounds. His discipline has been better, too; he’s averaging fewer fouls per game than he had his last two years, even while playing more minutes.

This year more than ever, with averages of 9.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game, Pinson has become a true triple-double threat, already having flirted with the accomplishment a couple of times this season (19/5/6 against Bucknell, 11/9/7 against Portland, 8/7/6 against Michigan). After only being able to show glimpses of his talent in his first three seasons, a lot of it is coming together this year.

The one exception, of course, is Pinson’s jump shot. A lot has been said about it during Pinson’s time at Carolina, not a lot of it positive. This year, however, has taken it to a new level, as Pinson has started the season 2/21 from outside the arc for what would easily be a career low 9.5% mark if it held. Not much has changed about his shooting form for better or for worse; it stands to reason that this run of awful shooting is due partially to bad luck, partially to increased attention from defenders, and partially, perhaps, the kind of confidence issue that often accompanies and compounds this kind of run. It’s worth noting, though, that his free throw percentage has been fine, which is unusual for a slump like this. And yes, this qualifies as a slump for Pinson. A career 27% suddenly not hitting at a third of that rate is not normal or expected. Just because he isn’t a good shooter doesn’t make any level of badness explainable.

In the last three games, Pinson has taken just one three-pointer and gone 8/14 from the field, which has prompted a lot of people to start talking about how much better Pinson is when he isn’t shooting threes. There’s just one problem, though: that’s not sustainable, based on both Pinson’s history as a player and how the game of basketball works.

To the second point, right now, Pinson is feeding on hard closeouts from his defenders. They allow him to beat his man on the drive and if the drive isn’t there, they also leave his teammates open for easy baskets, as evidenced by his 22 assists in the past 4 games. That happens because no matter the percentages, teams don’t want to let him shoot. That will not remain the case if he stops shooting entirely; see the end of last season for games in which Pinson was not closed out on when he was in position to take a perimeter shot. The inside was clogged up, and Pinson had basically no choice but to shoot his shot against a team with a rebounding numbers advantage. Not great.

The establishment of a shooting threat, even if it isn’t a potent one, is non-negligible, and it has helped Pinson’s non-shooting game. That Pinson is guarded on the perimeter helps the rest of the team as well by giving them driving lanes and post position that wouldn’t be available if an extra defender could afford to be inside.

The first point, though, about Pinson’s history, is more interesting to me. Consider this: When shooting 1 or fewer three-pointers, which has happened 54 times in his 95-game career, Theo Pinson has eclipsed 10 points just twice. When shooting 3 or more, he’s done it 9 times in 19 games. In February, Adrian Atkinson noted this:

Since then, that former mark has decreased thanks in part to an 0-4 night in the National Championship game, a 1-6 night in this year’s opener against Northern Iowa, and an 0-5 night against Michigan State. The discrepancy still exists, however, as Pinson’s career numbers are 30.1% with 3+ attempts and 18.7% with 0-2 attempts. One might think this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a statistic created by the fact that Pinson shoots more when he is shooting well.

This isn’t really the case, however, as in the 19 games in which Pinson has shot 3 or more three-pointers, his first shot has only gone in 5 times, or 26% of the time. That’s right around his career average. This suggests that Pinson’s problem isn’t really seeing the ball go in so much as it is needing to play without too much inhibition; while restricting his jump shot might seem like it is good for him, it actually creates the very liability it would seem to be avoiding.

And here’s the crucial part of this whole thing: Not only is Pinson a better shooter when he shoots more, he’s a better player when he shoots more. Take a look at this:

10+ Point Rate is the percentage of games within a set that Pinson scored 10 or more points.

Over the course of his career, Pinson’s magic number seems to be 3. Any more attempts than that and he is often hunting his shot to the detriment of his own and the team’s play, and any fewer than that and he is pressing, trying so hard not to shoot that his mental game is affected. When he takes 3 three-pointers in a game, not only do his shooting stats get better, the rest of his stats improve significantly as well. His assist rate is much better with 3 3PA than any other number, showing that he is increasingly involved in the offense when he feels uninhibited and plays within himself.

His rebounding stats tell a similar story: his rebounding rate at 3 attempts per game is slightly lower than it is at 2 attempts per game, but still significantly better than any other split. Again, when he plays his own game with the ball in his hands offensively, it carries over to his engagement as a part of the offense and on the boards. His defensive statistics do not show the same kind of discrepancy, as his 3 3PA splits are solidly in the middle of the pack for both blocks and steals. This goes along with my own observations that Pinson makes sure to provide the same energy on defense regardless of how he is doing on the offensive end.

All this is not even talking the most obvious advantage: scoring. It might seem elementary to say that when Pinson shoots more, he scores more, but the difference between when he shoots 3 or more three-pointers and when he doesn’t is staggering. He is way more likely to score 10+ points when attempting 3 or more three-pointers, but that isn’t just because he’s attempting more three-pointers. His 2-point percentage with 3 three-point attempts is 60%, significantly higher than both his career mark of just under 50% and any of his other splits.

This lends credence to the point about closeouts I made earlier; Pinson can only attack closeouts by driving when his defenders think they have to close out. This might also have something to do with the same effect we see with Pinson’s assists; when Pinson is playing his game on offense, his improved performance includes all aspects of his offensive game.

And while this analysis might seem a little too individual-focused for some, fear not: This is not a scenario where a player’s stats come at the cost of the team. In fact, Pinson’s 3 three-pointers attempted split is the only one of those splits where UNC is undefeated. With 4+ attempts UNC is 6-1, with 2 attempts the team is 18-4, with 1 attempt the Heels are 25-6, and with no attempts the team is 17-6. Those last two can be discounted somewhat as they are as much the product of a weaker 2014 team compared to Pinson’s other three years in Chapel Hill, but still, it is clear that Pinson shooting is not bad for the team.

Tar Heel Nation may collectively cringe every time Theo Pinson rises up for an outside jump shot, and as a series of self-contained moments, there’s ample justification for it. The evidence shows, though, that not shooting altogether is not the answer. He’s an enormously talented player who should just play the game the way he knows best, and that includes a semi-occasional look from outside. Shoot your shot, Theo.