By Adam Lucas
Let’s make a list of topics Roy Williams abhors.
Radio show questions that begin, “Have you ever thought about…?”
Slippery stickers on the court.
Discussions of the starting lineup.
And yet, there he was on Sunday afternoon, after Carolina’s 95-50 thumping of Radford, discussing Carolina’s starting lineup.
It wasn’t entirely by choice. Kenny Williams had just poured in 19 points, with 16 of them coming in the first half and 14 of those 16 happening in a Danny Green-ish four minutes and 40 seconds. So the question would naturally be asked to Williams: how do you determine the starting lineup?
Kenny Williams and Nate Britt have been on a haphazard starting rotation swap over the first month of the season. Williams started the opener, but then Britt received three starts in a row. Williams started all three games in the Maui Invitational, but then Britt started at Indiana, leading to Williams getting the start on Sunday afternoon.
So, coming off the best performance of his Tar Heel career, it will be Williams in the starting lineup on Wednesday night against Davidson, right?
Not so fast.
When Roy Williams was told the starting count so far this year is five for Kenny Williams and four for Britt, he grinned just a little and said, “Well, then Nate’s probably going to tie him up next game.”
How is that possible? Shouldn’t Williams be rewarded for his 19 points? Isn’t that a starter-caliber performance? Even Roy Williams himself said after the Radford win, “I’m not sure (Kenny)’s not our best perimeter defender right now.” He shoots, he defends, he drives to the rim…what exactly is the starting lineup based on, anyway?
“It’s based on nothing,” the head coach said.
Hold on just a second before you fire off the angry questions for Monday night’s Roy Williams radio show. Listen to a little more of the quote.
“If he hadn’t gotten hurt, who would be the starter there?” Roy Williams asked. The answer, of course, is Theo Pinson.
“So why am I going to anoint one guy and upset him by changing the lineup? Theo had earned it, but Theo got injured,” Williams said.
The “upset him” part of that quote is going to be misconstrued in upcoming days. Williams didn’t mean it would upset Pinson for someone else to get his starting position. Williams meant if he designates one player as the permanent starter in Pinson’s absence, it might be tougher for that player to go back to a reserve role once Pinson returns. The “him” refers to Kenny Williams and Britt, not Pinson.
So, then what’s the status of Pinson? We spoke with him last week on the Carolina Insider podcast. “The big thing is the next X-ray, which is Monday,” he said. “We moved it up, just two days, but it was like, ‘Theo, you’re really looking good in the weight room and in rehab, you’re walking a whole lot better. We’re going to move the x-ray date up a little bit.’ The big thing is the CT scan to see if the bone is healed enough to rev up the reps.”
Of course, as anyone who has watched Pinson’s pregame dance party already knows, he’s moving just fine without a boot. So his next step is Monday’s x-ray (this week will now also include x-rays for Joel Berry, but we’re going to choose to just blissfully ignore that as a necessary precaution), and then the Tar Heels can start thinking about getting him back in some limited fashion for practice.
Pinson makes the Tar Heels better. It was obvious on Wednesday night at Indiana that they missed him. His athleticism on defense would have made a difference in that game. Would he have made five three-pointers against Radford? Probably not. But he would have been important in Bloomington, and the fact is that Carolina will need Pinson, Williams and Britt by the time ACC play begins, against the best teams on the schedule. Some days they’ll need a shooter. Some days they’ll need a facilitator. Some days they’ll need a defender. As Williams has emerged in his sophomore season, it appears that between their shooting guard trio, the Tar Heels have all those areas covered.
Teammates were almost unanimous that Pinson had the best summer of any Tar Heel. His absence is unfortunate, but it also enables Kenny Williams to get the one thing he didn’t already have—important game minutes. By January or February, Carolina will have a veteran starting shooting guard, a newly experienced, talented and versatile sophomore shooting guard, and a flexible senior guard who can rotate between the off guard and point guard. If you're OK with that arrangement, you also have to accept that getting there might require some confusing decisions made in December. It will be worth it.
And if you have to have a rotation like this, it would be difficult to find three more accommodating individuals. Britt has consistently done anything that helps the team during his Carolina career. In his postgame interview with Jones Angell on Sunday afternoon, Kenny Williams—who had just made five three-pointers—actually said the words, “My favorite thing to do is take a charge.”
And Pinson said his injury has helped him become a better player and person. Why? “It’s helped me get more hands-on with the freshmen," he said. "They’ve let me help them out a lot, and they’ve been great.”
So maybe who starts Wednesday’s game doesn’t matter so much after all. What matters, it turns out, is the Tar Heels are building a versatile, dangerous backcourt for the ACC season and beyond.