COLUMN: Theo Pinson saving his best shot for surging UNC

Theo Pinson has been an enigma throughout his North Carolina career.

His ill-advised passes and woefully-missed jump shots have terrorized fans the same way his all-out hustle and impossible dimes have won their hearts.

But in Wednesday’s 78-74 win over Syracuse, Pinson was all lovable.

The senior filled the stat sheet again with a career-high 23 points, six rebounds and a game-high seven assists to only three turnovers. The fact that Pinson's sharp play has accompanied a six-game winning streak for the Tar Heels (22-7, 11-5 ACC) is not by chance.

It’s easy to see Carolina is at its best when its senior wing is at his best.

 Theo Pinson (1) has always made his name as a long defender and crafty offensive player. But he's reaching his ceiling at just the right time for a surging UNC team. | Photo courtesy The Daily Orange

Theo Pinson (1) has always made his name as a long defender and crafty offensive player. But he's reaching his ceiling at just the right time for a surging UNC team. | Photo courtesy The Daily Orange

In that six-game stretch, Pinson has averaged 12.5 points per game while shooting 64 percent from the field. He's also produced 36 assists compared to only 15 turnovers while playing increasingly more minutes as the point guard, a position thinned out with the absence of suspended freshman Jalek Felton and with starter Joel Berry playing heavy minutes.

If UNC can get its best facilitator to also become a scorer in the late stages of his career, the team will be harder than ever to stop on offense. And, believe it or not, Pinson’s three-point shooting is key.

Pinson was 5-for-33 from deep before UNC’s current six-game win streak. In the games since then, Pinson is 3-for-6. He made both of his three-point attempts against Syracuse (18-10, 7-8 ACC), including a huge bucket to keep the Orange at bay with 4:50 left. It was the first time all year he had made multiple threes in a contest, one game removed from going 1-for-2 from deep against Louisville.

The sample size is small, but Pinson is becoming smarter in his shot selection. ESPN’s play-by-play man Dan Dakich described Pinson as one of the smartest players in the ACC during Wednesday’s broadcast. Carolina fans may beg to differ given Pinson’s tendency to be over-ambitious with his passing, but his play during Carolina’s win streak is reason for hope.

UNC’s small starting lineup features four strong three-point shooters in Berry, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye. There has been no evidence thus far to suggest that Pinson is among that group.

 Theo Pinson (1) made the right decisions Wednesday in UNC's road win over Syracuse. The Tar Heels will need more of that to reach a third straight Final Four. | Photo courtesy The Daily Orange

Theo Pinson (1) made the right decisions Wednesday in UNC's road win over Syracuse. The Tar Heels will need more of that to reach a third straight Final Four. | Photo courtesy The Daily Orange

But what if he was?

Imagine a Carolina team that starts five three-point shooters. It’s not that far-fetched. UNC doesn’t need Pinson to make multiple three-pointers, like he did on Wednesday. At this point in his career, that’s not happening on a consistent basis.

But if Pinson could show he was at least capable of hitting an open shot from deep, that he would at least make the right choice, Carolina could truly space the floor. No one would be left unguarded on the perimeter, and driving lanes would open up even more for this explosive offense.

As is, Pinson is good enough to help lead the Tar Heels to a third straight Final Four, with his final home game coming Tuesday against Miami. It might not be with his three-point shooting, but, if the situation calls for it, UNC knows its veteran guard will make the right call.

Pinson is finally playing through his strengths and not attempting to be another player. That’s what Carolina needs, because Theo at his best is good enough.

@jleland_

Header photo by Gabi Palacio