Pinson is the ideal man for the job. Players spoke at length last season about the spark — the energy he brought to the four. He’s bouncy, rebounds well and can shoot just enough to draw opposing big men out to the 3-point line and away from the rim.
But unfortunately for the Tar Heels, he will start the season in a suit while nursing a broken bone in his foot.
The role now falls on Justin Jackson, who appreciates the flexibility of the position.
He’s not a perfect fit for the position, but his offensive blend of 3-point shooting and trademark floaters give him the tools needed to succeed.
“It gives me a lot of freedom, whenever I play that four spot, especially on offense,” Jackson said. “I don’t necessarily have to stay inside the whole time. So I think whatever coach wants to do, I feel comfortable doing whatever that is.”
Pinson and Jackson bring different things to the table as small-ball fours. Jackson is a better shooter, has a higher field-goal percentage and is the more menacing threat from beyond the arc.
But Pinson is a better rebounder — Jackson had a defensive rebounding percentage of 7.9 percent in 2015-16, while Pinson’s was 11.9.
“I think when Justin is in at the four, everyone has to rebound as a group,” junior point guard Joel Berry said. “We just can’t have him and the other big man down there trying to rebound.”
Rebounding is still just rebounding at the end of the day, sophomore Luke Maye said. It doesn’t get any harder with two bigs or one.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about boxing out,” he said. “And if all five guys box out, we should get the rebound. It doesn’t matter if we go four guards and a big or three guards and two bigs. I mean, at the end of the day, we’ve got to come out with the rebound.”
What the small lineup does provide offensively is more space on the floor. Without another big clogging the paint, cracks open up in the defense and the Tar Heels can attack them with strong punches. Often the beneficiary is Berry, who has the vision to read the extra space and the skills to take advantage of it.
“If we penetrate ... the big man has to step over,” Berry said. “That’s a dump down for our big man, or (we can) shoot the three ball.”
Berry is illustrating what he sees from a point guard’s perspective. When he drives, there is only one big man left in the paint to protect the rim. The other is usually floating aimlessly around the arc, drawn there by the threat of a Pinson or Jackson 3-pointer.
Jackson or Pinson are equally unguardable when the ball is in their hands. And the opposing team’s big man usually isn’t up to the task of staying in front of UNC’s small-ball four, leading to defensive breakdowns.
Small-ball lineups break down defenses by creating favorable matchups. North Carolina will miss Pinson in the role for the early part of the season, but look for Jackson to step up and be just as bright of a spark.