Pinsons injury gives young Tar Heels a chance to shine

Pinson broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot during practice last week and will likely be sidelined at least until the start of the ACC schedule in late December. He underwent surgery to repair the damage on Tuesday

Christine T. Nguyen—North State Journal
North Carolina forward Theo Pinson (1) goes up for a basket around Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon (20) during the first half of an NCAA Men's Basketball Championship semifinal game at the NRG Stadium in Houston

CHARLOTTE — Losing forward Theo Pinson to a foot injury for at least the next two months isn’t the way the North Carolina basketball team wanted to start its 2016-17 season. But it’s also not the worst thing that could have happened, either. As much as the Tar Heels will miss Pinson’s energy and a skill set so diverse that it’s earned him the nickname “Swiss Army Knife,” his absence will give some of his younger teammates an opportunity to grow up faster than expected. “We don’t want it to happen to Theo, because we were expecting a big year from him,” junior point guard Joel Berry said Tuesday at the ACC’s annual Operation Basketball media day. “(But) it will help us a lot when it comes to getting our freshmen going.” Pinson broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot during practice last week and will likely be sidelined at least until the start of the ACC schedule in late December. He underwent surgery to repair the damage on Tuesday. In his absence, rookie guards Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods, along with sophomore Kenny Williams, stand to gain the most playing time. Should one or more rise to the occasion the way Berry did in a similar situation a year ago, UNC stands to be an even better and deeper team than expected by the time Pinson is healthy enough to return to action. Berry was thrust into the role of starting point guard when teammate Marcus Paige suffered an injury that kept him out of action for the first six games of 2015-16. Boosted by the confidence he gained from the experience, Berry went on to lead the team in assists while ranking second in scoring and earning the Everett Case Award as the MVP of the ACC tournament. “Last year, Marcus was out so I had to step into a role faster than I expected,” Berry said. “I think that will help us a lot in getting Brandon and Seventh involved.” While that might turn out to be the case, coach Roy Williams would prefer not to have to rely so heavily on his untested newcomers so early in their careers. “I’d rather make my team stronger by everybody improving themselves,” the Hall of Fame coach said, “instead of losing a guy.” Of the youngsters, Woods is by far the most well-known thanks to a well-publicized mixtape that led him to be hailed as “the 14-year-old basketball player in the country.” He’s also a two-time South Carolina Mr. Basketball. But because of the difficulty in learning to play the point, he has been overshadowed at practice thus far by his teammate Robinson, who has made a positive first impression on his teammates at the shooting guard position. “I love his aggressiveness,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said of the 6-foot-5 Georgia native. “He attacks the rim. He tried to dunk over me at practice. That type of stuff is what we need from the jump.” Williams was noncommittal Tuesday when asked who might be in line to fill Pinson’s spot in the starting lineup, saying that it’s still too early to tell after only two practices without the junior wing. Williams said the decision probably won’t be made until next week’s private scrimmage against Memphis and a public exhibition game against UNC Pembroke on Nov. 4. As much of an opportunity as the Tar Heels’ younger players are being given to assert themselves, the most logical replacement, at least as the start of the season, is veteran Nate Britt — a versatile team player who has vastly improved his shooting touch during his career in Chapel Hill. “Coach loves to have two point guards or two guards that can bring up the ball,” Berry said. “When in doubt, if we need someone to come in I think Nate will be that guy. “In practice we’ve been doing that a lot, having him a the one, me at the two or me at the one and him at the two. It just makes our offense faster, whether it’s getting the ball out and not having to find the one guard. If he’s there, you can just give it to him and I’ll run the court. I like the lineup, but as the season goes along we’ll see how the lineup goes.” At this point in the process, Williams said he’s more concerned about the wellbeing of his injured player rather than deciding on how he’s going to replace him. “Theo was more than crushed,” said Williams, who planned to visit Pinson at the hospital as soon as he returned to Chapel Hill. “Theo worked really hard in the offseason and was playing better in the first 14 practices, so what I try to think of is that individual. “Get through that, the surgery’s okay and they tell you how long he’ll be out. Then you start thinking about w