By Turner Walston @TurnerWalston
photos by Olivia Henley & Turner Walston
After missing the first 16 games of his junior season with a foot injury, Theo Pinson returned to the Tar Heel men’s basketball lineup in January. He became a starter when Kenny Williams suffered a knee injury and helped the team win Roy Williams’ third national championship, averaging 6.1 points and 4.6 rebounds along the way. After considering entering the NBA Draft, Pinson returns to Carolina as one of two scholarship seniors. Theo sat down with Argyle Report’s Turner Walston in late July.
Did you hurt your foot at the Fort Bragg scrimmage last fall?
It was bothering me a little bit before that, and at Fort Bragg, I knew there was something wrong and we needed to check it out and see how bad it is and once we went to the doctor we found out what it was, and it was what I expected. I've had that injury before, and I knew what it felt like and it stopped my mobility. I could feel it when I was walking, and so I sort of knew what was going on.
Were you better for having watched the first half of the season?
I think it just helped out a lot that I had been through it before, as far as the rehab process. I know James (Ayscue, assistant strength coach), Jonas (Sahratian) and Doug (Halverson) were saying, 'We rarely have anybody as positive as you were, and so enthusiastic,' about not being out there and being with the team and being interactive with them. I'd been through it before and I knew I would be alright if I'd get in the weight room and get stronger. I could work on different types of my body and try to get my foot back and right, and I did. It helped me see what our guys from last year liked to do, and what spots they like, what they do best and stuff like that, and see where I could fit in.
You didn't have to crash press conferences last year. You became more known for your play off the court than your personality off of it. What changed?
I think people thought I thought about it more than I actually did. The thing I did in my sophomore year, I just did it. It wasn't like a process of me thinking about it. I just did it. Last year, I got invited to everything, so it wasn't like I could crash it.
Everybody was like, 'Theo, why don't you crash it anymore?' I'm like, 'Uh, they asked me to go, so I don't really know what you want me to do.'
It was just a different, get older, you start playing more and it's just different seasons.
Are there players that you watch and take things from to add to your game?
Since I've been playing forward the past two years a little bit, I've been looking at Draymond (Green) and Andre (Iguodala). I know they're on the same team, but they do similar things to what I do. They can guard anybody on the floor and do a good job at it and compete against them. I try to emulate how Draymond approaches the game, making plays for his teammates. He's not the number one scorer, but he can still put the ball in the basket and he can guard one through five. I think that's the way the league is going right now, so that's only going to help me.
How do you make yourself bigger and guard a guy three inches taller than you?
Heart. I'm pretty sure if you asked Coach if there was a seven-footer going through the paint and he needed a guard to guard him, who would he suggest and think they can guard him? He'd be like, 'Theo.' Because I take on that challenge. I remember I was little and we went to the outside courts, and everybody was like, 'Theo, you're too little to play,' and I'd still go out there and battle. I don't care if I'm that little. If you score on me, you score on me, but you're going to have to earn it.
That's just the type of approach I have. It's tiring, but I enjoy guarding bigger players. They start over-thinking when they have somebody smaller on them. 'Oh, I've got this guy.'
And then, I'll just outsmart you. You try to body me, I'll pull the chair out from under you and make you look dumb. Little stuff like that. It's just fun to me.
And then there's another end of the court, where they've got to guard you, right?
Exactly. It's just pick your poison. I was talking to Jawad (Williams) the other day. He loved playing the four, because the four has to guard you on the other end, and he knew that he could score on him any time he wanted.
You have really good court vision, but you’re not a point guard. Where does that come from? I think most of the coaches say, 'Theo, you're a big-time risk-taker,' but it's just like I have enough confidence in myself and you can tell with my personality I have a lot of confidence in myself as far as, 'I can get that pass through there,' but at the same time, being at Carolina has helped me a lot as far as time and score, and when to make those plays. When I first got here, I was trying to make those plays every time I caught the ball instead of just letting it come to me and then making that play. Coach has helped me out a lot about that aspect of my game. It's just something I've been doing my whole life. A lot of people ask me, 'Theo, why don't you run point guard?' I'm like, ''Cause I'm not a point guard.' That's the bottom line, but why not have a two or three be able to pass the ball like that and use that as a threat?
What process did you go through in thinking about the NBA Draft?
The whole process was just personally, the thing I was thinking about most was just getting feedback from teams, what they thought about me who was the most interested in me and who liked me at not actually playing a full season. So that's what I was trying to look for, and I got the feedback. I was never thinking about leaving. I wanted to put a full season together where I could show that I could be healthy and play at a high level. It was never a question of if I was coming back or not so I just wanted to get feedback from the NBA teams and see where I was.
What did Coach Williams say to you in your conversation after the season about what he'd like to see from you in the off-season and your role moving forward?
Basically, just stay in the gym and get my shot better. That's one thing that's just going to help me in the future and next year coming up. And just being more locked in on the defensive end, taking on the challenge of guarding the best player every night and just trying to lock them down. And just keep doing what I do best, and making plays and keeping my assist-to-turnover at a high rate as far as more assists than turnovers, of course. And trying to be the best at that. I did a really good job the past two years at that. Last year was really good and I'm going to try to just keep it up.
Is it always alumni vs. the current team when you play pickup in the summers?
This year we haven't had as many alums as last year, but the thing about here, we have so many alums that can play. When I say we don't have as much, it's still a lot that come back. This year we've actually mixed it up more than we usually do, just because we've got a lot of new guys that we want to throw in there with us and play.
Joel and I aren't going to get as much out of pickup as Andrew (Platek) or Sterling (Manley) and the new guys would get out of it. Me and Joel have literally been through every situation you can think of. They need to play a little more college basketball at the speed and the physicality and stuff like that.
Before you won in Phoenix, had guys who have won championships been in your ear?
Definitely. I remember before the championship game, Sean (May) was like, 'There's a seat at the table waiting for you. Now, you've just got to pull up a chair.' And I remember right after the game, I said, 'Sean, get my seat ready.'
And that was just one of the fun moments we had, and they always tell us, 'We expect a championship every year,' because that's just how it is here. And I like it that way, because I wouldn't come here if it wasn't that type of deal. Yeah, they always have that expectation. D-No (David Noel), Jawad, Sheed (Wallace), all those guys come back and just tell us they look forward to seeing us play.
I hear that Joel and Tyler Hansbrough have had some back and forth in pickup.
Yeah. At the beginning of the summer, it was a Tyler Hansbrough-Joel battle, because they were always on opposite teams, so they would always go at it. But then recently, probably three or four weeks ago, they've been playing together ever since. Tyler Hansbrough loves Joel. Loves him now. He loves the challenge and how competitive he is, and just his want to win every game, and he just loves that about him and he'd rather play on his team than anybody. So they're cool now. Well, they were cool before, but when they got in between those lines, you'd feel like they were about to go duke it out.
Check back tomorrow for part two of our conversation with Theo.