If there’s a player more excited this week than Theo Pinson about running around in uniform at the NBA Draft Combine, that’s an upset.
When a door is slammed, then it cracks back open, you feel lucky to slip inside.
The North Carolina senior wasn’t initially invited to the major event in preparation for the June 21 draft. Then, he got a call Monday morning to pack for this week of 5-on-5 games, physical measurements and drills conducted by veteran NBA coaches.
“I was on a waiting list to start off with. My agent called to tell me I’d been invited. It was a pretty cool moment,” said Pinson, a 6-6 forward.
“(That call) just a flipped switch: Understanding that I have to come here and perform at the highest level. This is a great opportunity for me.”
Roughly 70 players show up, and there is a caste system of sorts. A few elite prospects only do the medical exams and meet with teams. The next strata might do physical testing, such as agility drills or the vertical leap.
The rest suit up for drills and games, hoping to draw some positive attention from the stands, where each of the NBA’s 30 teams has probably a half-dozen or more talent evaluators in attendance.
Whether or not Pinson is one of the 60 players drafted next month, participating this week can make a difference. If he makes some good plays in the camp game, it might lead to more workouts with individual teams. That could lead (if he’s not drafted) to a summer-league invitation and ultimately a shot at a training camp invitation.
Tight as 15-player NBA rosters are, some players do manage to build long careers despite not being drafted. Charlottean Anthony Morrow wowed the Golden State Warriors at Las Vegas Summer League in 2008, after not being selected in that year’s draft. He ended up playing a decade for seven NBA teams.
Brad Miller was signed by the original Hornets after not being drafted out of Purdue. He played 14 NBA seasons and was selected to two All-Star Games.
“This is how to showcase that I’m trying to get better. It’s fine with me that I’ve got to do it,” Pinson said. “The interview process is huge, the measurables are huge for guys like us.”
I asked Pinson Thursday what one thing he believes he already does at an NBA level. He said defensive versatility. That’s pretty valuable, if true, the way the NBA game is evolving. A player like Draymond Green went from a second-round pick to a star on the Warriors’ championship roster.
That’s not to suggest Pinson is the next Green. But he’s of similar height and body type, and what he was asked to do on North Carolina’s teams – including a national championship run – illustrates why he mentioned defensive versatility as the hook that could get him through that next door.
“This has become a switching (defense) league. They’re going to ask you to guard everybody, and I can do that,” said Pinson, who played mostly power forward this past season.
“If you get hung up (by a screen), I’ll take him, whether it’s a (center) or a point guard. I might need help (against an NBA center), I might switch back at the end, but I’ll take him.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has sent dozens of players to the NBA, so I asked Pinson what Williams’ message was to him as he left for Chicago. It was simple, Pinson recalled.
“Coach told me straight-up to ‘Be Theo.’ Don’t come out here trying to be something you’re not,” Pinson said.
That means don’t attempt shots out of your range, listen when coached and be a good teammate even in a setting where every player’s intent this week is self-marketing.
Pinson’s “sales pitch” right now is a guy who’ll fit in, without an excess of ego and a passion to defend.
“I think I’ll be a steal,” Pinson concluded. “I won’t do anything to hurt a team, and I believe I can do things that will help win games.”
That door cracked open Monday. Now it’s up to Pinson to pass through.