Lucas: The Difference
Release: 01/21/2017

By Adam Lucas

CHESTNUT HILL—The gaggle of basketball lifers gathered outside the Carolina locker room after Saturday’s 90-82 win over Boston College. They were perusing the stat sheet from the game, which was filled with all the Tar Heel superstars. Justin Jackson scored 22 points. Kennedy Meeks had 22 points and nine rebounds. Joel Berry made a couple three-pointers, including a huge one with 75 seconds remaining that essentially sealed the game.

So there was plenty to talk about. And this group saw those players. But they saw something else, too.

“The difference in that game,” said a gentleman who has played, coached and been in the front office of the NBA at the very highest levels, “was Theo Pinson.”

Say what now?

Pinson made three baskets (three Tar Heels made more). He collected five rebounds (four Tar Heels had at least that many). He played 23 minutes (three Tar Heels played more) and did not lead the team in any statistical category. And he was the difference?

Yes, he is. But it goes a little further than that. You can add Kenny Williams into that category of 2017 Tar Heels who figure out a way to do whatever the team needs at that exact moment. Williams was even more absent from the stat sheet than Pinson; in 19 minutes, he did not get an offensive rebound and made one basket.

But he also did something you can’t find anywhere on the stat sheet. With seven minutes remaining, and Carolina in a stretch where the defense couldn’t stop Boston College (the Eagles were in a series of scoring on four straight possessions), he threw himself on a loose ball and saved a possession that ended with a couple of Meeks free throws.

There have been times in recent years when the Tar Heels would’ve stood and watched a ball like that. Not this year. Not with Williams and Pinson around, with an instinctive feel for exactly what their team needs.

“This game is more than just putting the ball in the basket and having highlight plays,” Berry said. “It’s about the nitty gritty plays that no one sees and don’t show up in the box score. Kenny and Theo made plays we needed. They’re great players, but when it comes down to those plays, they’re capable of doing it.”

That’s one of the keys. Both Williams and Pinson are capable of doing more than what they need to do for this year’s Carolina team. Williams may one day be a 20-point per game scorer. Pinson might eventually post the third triple-double in Carolina basketball history. But that’s not what they’re needed for in 2017, so they’ve figured out a way to make other plays at the highest possible intensity.

What a lesson. There’s a chance you might not be the biggest or fastest or highest jumper. But you can always be the difference.

Before Pinson ever entered the game, with Carolina in a tight game on the road, a member of the coaching staff leaned over to him. “Theo, you’ve got to be the sparkplug,” he said. No specific guidelines for what to do. No detailed instructions. Just figure out what the team needs, and do it.

So, of course, In a three-point game with 5:30 remaining, Pinson got two enormous offensive rebounds and putbacks to stretch it to a seven-point Carolina advantage. The plays weren’t run for him. It didn’t matter. A couple minutes later, when Jackson took a rare bad shot—he was off balance and almost sideways to the rim—it was Pinson who swooped in and grabbed the rebound in a possession that ended with a couple of made free throws.  

This might tell you a little something about Pinson. In a happy postgame locker room, players don’t always recall exactly what happened—especially the sequencing—during the game they just played. It’s like asking you to recite all the street signs you passed during an intense run—sometimes the details slip by.

The very best coaches, though, always know the particulars of what happened. Roy Williams can flawlessly recite what all five players were doing on the court on any play immediately after the game. It’s not a skill you can learn. You either have it or you don’t.

Pinson has it. Asked about his two consecutive putbacks, he perfectly recollected the score, the time, and who took the initial shot on those possessions (Jackson). He even remembered the pass that led to the second hoop in that series—“We had gotten a defensive stop, and we had the numbers and Kenny kicked it to Justin,” he said. “I had a straight beeline to the rim, and they had to call timeout because the momentum had shifted.”

That’s what those plays tend to do. A couple lockers down from Pinson, going through the stat sheet with Kenny Williams, it didn’t seem right. Players and coaches have acknowledged offensive rebounding is often about effort. Williams’ line had a zero under offensive rebounds, the exact same number as Wanda. But while Wanda might make a mean banana pudding, she probably wouldn’t throw herself on a loose ball.

The Tar Heel sophomore grinned a little when he saw the zero.  And then he said perhaps the most perfect quote of the season about this surprising 2017 team, this group that lost its two best players and now stands 18-3 and 6-1 in the league. As we get close to February, this paragraph characterizes this year’s team as perfectly as anyone could, and so we’re going to let Kenny Williams take it home.

“I kind of like it that those plays don’t show up on the stat sheet,” he said. “That’s one of the beauties of those kinds of plays. Some guys do stuff that doesn’t show up on this sheet. That’s what makes a complete team. You have to have a couple guys who don’t know their numbers and will put their body on the line for the team at any time. That’s the beauty of it—they don’t show up. It has to come completely from inside of you. There’s no external motivation for it other than helping the team. You have to have so many different types of players to make a complete team. Everyone has to understand what they contribute to the team, and then they have to do it to the best of their ability every night.”

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