Theo Pinson, UNC's do-everything senior, wouldn't trade these 4 years for the world
Pinson is the only top-15 recruit from 2014 still in college.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The moment it all sunk in, and perhaps the finest memory of all his college years, came after midnight at the team hotel.
The North Carolina Tar Heels had done it -- winning the 2017 national title one year after they had lost in the title game to Villanova in the most painful way possible -- and Theo Pinson was sitting on the bed in his hotel room. He was still wearing his game gear: his Carolina blue jersey, his shoes, his ankles taped, the clipping of the national title net dangling from his championship hat. His backpack hung from his shoulders. The television replayed highlights of North Carolina's sixth national title. More than 100 text messages popped up on his phone. His roommate, Joel Berry, was out celebrating with his family, but Pinson's family had to get to the airport, so he sat there, alone, soaking in this moment and reminiscing about the long journey that brought him there.
"Everything was moving so fast before then," Pinson said. "I just sat there and, just, wow. I didn't take anything off. Just sitting there. I had the bandage still on my arm from the game. Wow. A national championship."
Then it was seven months later, a few days before Pinson's 22nd birthday and a week before the beginning of his senior collegiate season. Sweat ringed on Pinson's chest from an afternoon weightlifting session.
When he entered college before the 2014-15 season, this was a place he never thought he would be, still on a college campus heading into his final year of eligibility. He was supposed to be in the NBA by now. Pinson had been ranked the 15th-best recruit in the country in 2014, per 247Sports.com's composite rankings. Of the 14 players ranked ahead of him, 12 became one-and-done draft entrants (including Emmanuel Mudiay, who played one year in China after high school before becoming a lottery pick). One played two years in college before heading to the NBA. And the last was Justin Jackson, who played with Pinson for three seasons in Chapel Hill before being selected No. 15 overall in June.
Pinson is the only player in that group of 15 who has yet to reach the NBA. So here's what I wanted to ask Pinson: If he could trade the experiences of his past two years -- two straight trips to the national title game, then winning it all for the school that this North Carolina native grew up following -- to become a one-and-done first-round pick, would he do it?
In today's world of college hoops, the pressure is on elite players to get to the NBA as soon as possible. Anything less than going one-and-done is considered almost a failure. That's why so many people were confounded by Miles Bridges' decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season even though he certainly would have been a lottery pick.
And yet weren't your college years, if you went, among the best of your life? Wouldn't you pay a hefty sum of money in order to get an extra year in college, or to relive part of your college experience? Isn't Theo Pinson actually living out many of our dreams?
"I remember before I ever came to college, my dad said, 'No matter what, enjoy college, it's the best four years of your life,'" Pinson told me. "No matter who you talk to, everybody has the same answer -- college is the best time of your life. Even [former UNC star] Sean May, he says, 'I wish I could've played another year in college, I loved it that much.' I don't take this time for granted, being here. It's been a fun ride, an unbelievable ride. I'm living the dream, really. Ever since I've watched basketball, this is what I've wanted to do."
That's not to say Pinson doesn't want to end up in the NBA. Of course he does. And that's not to say Pinson won't someday play in the NBA. He's an athletic, versatile wing player who has ideal NBA size: 6-feet-6 with a near-seven-foot wingspan. He was the best defender on a national championship team. But he has suffered injuries that have slowed his collegiate development, and while he's a stat-stuffer type whose intangible contributions to his team -- he has an incredible assist rate and can play lockdown defense -- aren't always obvious in the box score, there still aren't many draft picks who have averaged less than five points per game in their college careers. And not too many wings are drafted after shooting 27 percent on 3-pointers in college.
In the offseason, though, Pinson added 10 or so pounds of muscle. He can see how being a college senior can be a perverse advantage as he continues his basketball career; players like Malcolm Brogdon, Denzel Valentine and Draymond Green spent four years in college and found spots on rosters with NBA-ready bodies.
Speaking of Green, he's a potential NBA model for Pinson, who can guard four positions, perhaps five in a pinch. That's ideal for an increasingly positionless NBA. Like Green, Pinson tries to let the game come to him. He doesn't think before a game, "Man, I need 15 points today." He knows that making a play can be for himself or for the team. He has spent untold hours working on his 3-pointer, knowing that a key part of a 3-and-D NBA player is, well, the 3.
Maybe he gets to the NBA; maybe he doesn't. Either way, he doesn't regret his time in college. Not for a minute. Like he said, he's living all of our dreams. Just the other night, it was 10 p.m. when Pinson got a hankering for something sweet. He did what any other college student would do: He got in his car and drove to the closest Krispy Kreme, which is way over in Durham. The "HOT NOW" sign was on, even though the store was about to close. Pinson grabbed a dozen, drove back to his apartment and ate three of them.
Instead of entering the working world as a professional, Pinson is still a college kid, creating all the memories that come with that.
"Going to the Final Four, playing in a football arena, and being able to do that twice -- it's so rare!" Pinson said. "This past year, when we woke up the morning of national championship game, I told Joel, 'We're literally two kids, about to play in our second national championship game, back to back! Who does stuff like that? We're blessed.'"
Which brings us back to the question: Would Pinson make that trade? Would he give back the past two amazing years in order to be that first-round, one-and-done NBA player?
"No," Pinson said with a huge smile. "One of the best times of my life has been the last two years. My sophomore year, that last month from beating Duke in Cameron and going all the way to the national championship game undefeated, that was one of the best times of my life. And then last year, that last month again, then winning the national championship -- I can't even explain it. And the guys I've met here, it's such a family-oriented program. You can't trade that for the world."
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