While most elite North Carolina products ultimately select one of the in-state programs, Theo Pinson's story followed a unique trajectory. He certainly emerged early, drawing raves even before he enrolled in high school. And he did attract almost immediate attention from North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State, Wake Forest and others.
He produced an encouraging freshman season at Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military and then for his sophomore seasons transferred to High Point (N.C.) Wesleyan, where he continued to impress.
He then enjoyed meaningful success playing on the 17-under EYBL circuit with CP3 in 2012. Pinson next had a strong junior year and continued to hold widespread major interest, but his recruitment became cloudy with respect to the in-state powers.
The Tar Heels received a commitment from Justin Jackson and in the spring appeared very strong with blue-chip guard Rashad Vaughn. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, appeared to waver and then took a pledge from wing Grayson Allen.
At that point, Indiana made a strong move and hosted Pinson for an official visit in February. Many speculated into the spring that Tom Crean's Hoosiers may have nudged past the allegedly waffling blueblood programs closer to home, but UNC's pursuit appeared to amplify in terms of intensity and the steady pressure enabled the Heels to win out in May.
He followed up that pledge with a rising senior summer that alternated between solid and terrific. He may have played his best ball at the EYBL Finals, where he shot 16-18 on three throws en route to 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in a hard-fought championship loss to Each 1 Teach 1.
All-around utility contributions are likely to be Pinson's hallmark, but that description shouldn't interpreted as a restraining box. He's capable of explosive offensive outbursts but, while that aspect of his game isn't yet consistent, so many of his other attributes are.
Pinson is a long-armed athlete who's quick and explosive. He isn't as springy as some national elites, but he boasts a good first step and is very quick laterally. For that reason he does some of his most vital work defensively, where he's a potential lockdown wing.
He can defend either wing spot and has guarded the occasional point guard and power forward as well. He brings not only quickness but height — he has grown to 6-6 — length, instincts and excellent anticipation. He frequently jumps passing lanes for steals and is a perpetual nuisance to big men as a ball-stripper inside.
He proved in late July to be a workhorse slasher. In the past he has been less aggressive off the dribble, but 18 free throw attempts speaks for itself. And though not a great three-point shooter (more on that below), he consistently knocks down his freebies.
He also possesses outstanding body control for finishing in traffic. Even if he doesn't assert himself liberally in the halfcourt game, he projects as an immediate contributor as a transition finisher.
Meanwhile, Pinson will be an outstanding wing passer. He's a truly gifted assists-man who's both unselfish and creative, making bounce passes worthy of point guard status. That's not his position, of course, but he'll fool you on occasion while running the break.
Winning also has become rote to Pinson, and he has shown a desire to elevate his game in key moments.
Here it is. How can a guy with so much athleticism and skill not rank in the top 15 or higher?
The answer is that nagging jump shot and surprisingly quiet scoring performances. Pinson shoots with a chicken wing form that typically is very difficult to overcome versus college and NBA-level defenses. His mechanics must be the problem, because he actually possesses good overall touch (hence the free throw accuracy), while most non-shooters struggle from all ranges.
Along with that, he regularly checks in with solid, 12-point, six-rebound, four-assist type outings, rather than truly imprinting a game with dominance. The upshot to that, however, is that he won't arrive at UNC expecting to dominate the ball the way many scorers do.
He already plays a complementary style, but his talent extends beyond the complementary and he may blossom as a scorer at the next level. Until then, though, and jumper factored in, it's partially a leap of faith.
Pinson should be able to win immediate playing time given UNC's lack of wing depth, but the situation is more complicated than it appears at a glance. Because three legitimate high-major point guards will exist on next season's roster — Marcus Paige, Nate Britt and Joel Berry — at least one of them is likely to spend time on the wing.
The bottom line is that he does too many things well — and more importantly, he does uptempo things very well — not to play. His best case, at least early, may be to assume a blending role and expand that to become more offense-minded over time. Ultimately, he could start for multiple seasons and become one of the ACC's most valuable all-around players.