Theo Pinson rounded out his high school basketball career just the way he intended: with a second straight state championship at Wesleyan Christian Academy. “That was my goal going in to the season, leaving on top, and I did, my senior year,” he said in an interview this week. Along the way, Pinson became one of the elite players of the class of 2014, earned McDonald’s All-America honors and even jumped over his mother to win the Under Armour Elite 24 dunk contest. Now comes the next step in his basketball career: On Sunday, he’ll move in to his dorm room in Chapel Hill and become a North Carolina Tar Heel.
An athletic 6’6, 190-pound wing from Greensboro, Pinson was the ‘do everything’ player for Wesleyan Christian. “Scoring the ball when needed, facilitating when needed,” said Trojans coach Keith Gatlin. “He played point guard for me, two guard, forward . . . He’s just a player. You can’t put him in one particular spot because he’s just a player. If you need him to score the ball, he can. He can pass, he can facilitate . . . he’s just a basketball player.”
As he’s a longer guy that can handle the ball, Pinson can create for himself and his teammates. “If I get the rebound or I get an outlet pass, I can do something with it,” Pinson said. “I don’t have to find a point guard. I can just take the ball myself and I can create plays.”
Pinson is hesistant to point to a single former Tar Heel that he compares himself to, instead opting to pick and choose aspect of several players’ games that he incorporates into his own. “I played with Raymond Felton a lot. I like the way he plays off of pick and rolls, so I look at that a lot,” he said. “I like the way Harrison Barnes moves without the ball. He can score the ball in bunches. And you couldn’t miss Kendall Marshall’s passes. They were always on the money.”
Gatlin was a starter for Lefty Dreisell on the Maryland teams of he mid-1980s and is now helping Pinson prepare for the rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference. This summer, the two have worked together on efficiency, a crucial but often overlooked attribute for new college players. Minutes aren’t guaranteed in college, so a player must to take full advantage of the time he’s on the floor. “If you can get ten, nine points shooting four or five times and be very efficient, then you stay on the court longer, you impact the game in a lot of ways,” Gatlin said.
Pinson averaged 23 points per game as a high school senior, but this Carolina team as currently constructed isn’t built around a single player hoisting up 15 shot attempts night after night, and it’s not realistic for Pinson to expect Roy Williams to change that this November. Theo knows that and is intent on helping the team in any way that he can. “You’ve just got to cherish every moment,” Pinson said. “In high school, efficiency is not really weighed like it is going to be in college.” In his summer workouts, he’s not just getting shots up; he’s getting shots in. Every workout, he’s set a standard to make a certain number of shots, not just take them. “Every shot has to be important,” Pinson said. “That mindset going in is probably going to help me a little bit. Sometimes you might not get there and you’ve just got to shoot more shots. That’s when it’s get tough. That’s when the mental game comes in.”
Like fellow freshman Justin Jackson, Pinson is looking forward to getting into the weight room and gaining strength for the grind of the college basketball season. He wants to have the stamina to stay in the game and keep his jump shot consistent. “I’m ready to get in there and get better, get stronger with Jonas (Sahratian),” he said. “I know he’s going to kill us, but at the same time it’s going to make us better.”
Since his commitment, Pinson has been to Chapel Hill on several occasions to play pick-up basketball with current Tar Heels. Every day he steps on the court, he’s learning, taking things from other players and adding them to his own game. He’s looking forward to the famous summer scrimmages with former Carolina legends. “When we get down there, we’re playing against the pros right out of the gate, so that’s going to help me out a whole lot,” he said. “When you play in a college game, you’re not going to play against somebody that smart. You’ve got to think, so it’s going to be real tough so I’m really excited to get the chance to go against them.”
In high school, Pinson experienced some of the attention—positive and negative—that comes with being a highly-regarded basketball talent. He knows that once he pulls on the Carolina jersey, that magnification on that microscope is only going to be greater. He’s looking forward to building relationships with his teammates, the young men that will inhabit that competitive cauldron with him. “Once you get to Carolina, it’s going to be that all the time,” he said. “People talk about you. You have bad games, they’re going to destroy you. I feel like I”m prepared for it. When I get down there I want to have good relationships with all those guys once they’r down there with you and they’re going to through the same thing everybody’s just going to stick together and then that’s when it becomes easy.”
Every time he steps onto the court, Theo Pinson is learning, adding something to his game. This season, he’ll have the opportunity to showcase those skills in a North Carolina uniform. And just as he looks up to the Tar Heels that preceded him, perhaps it won’t be long before the next generation of Tar Heels is pointing to Theo Pinson as an inspiration.