Scott Fowler

This Tar Heels player does a great LeBron James imitation - except for one thing

North Carolina has more purely talented players than Theo Pinson. The Tar Heels have better shooters than Theo Pinson.

But they have no one on their team more important than Theo Pinson, one of the more unique players in the team’s recent history.

As the Tar Heels enter the NCAA tournament Friday trying to make a run to a third straight Final Four, Pinson as usual will be in the middle of it all. The senior from Greensboro is the closest thing the Tar Heels have to a LeBron James – if you subtract almost all of the points that LeBron scores.

What Pinson does is just about everything else. At 6-foot-6, he fills the box score with assists, steals and rebounds – playing the “point forward” position that LeBron has mastered in the NBA.

Pinson also has a big, bubbly personality – a player who can tease his own Hall of Fame coach without fear of repercussion except for the occasional return jab.

“How am I soaking up these last moments with Theo?” North Carolina coach Roy Williams asked Thursday. “I’m really sort of counting down when I’ll get rid of the rascal.”

If Pinson had a great 3-point shot along with everything else, he would be an ideal NBA player – intelligent, long and able to score from distance. But he has never been a natural scorer, averaging only 6.2 points in his career and shooting just 26.1 percent from 3-point range.

Entering this season, the Tar Heels had 76 players in their history who have scored at least 1,000 points. Pinson won’t join that list – he only has 738.

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North Carolina Tar Heels assistant coach Hubert Davis, left, jokes with Theo Pinson Thursday in Charlotte. Pinson leads the Tar Heels in assists this season and is second on the team in rebounding. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Nevertheless, Pinson has made himself into an invaluable college player. He is the guy who dribbled three-quarters of the way down the court, drew the defense and then flipped the ball to Luke Maye for the game-winner against Kentucky in the 2017 NCAA tournament.

Pinson also assisted on the Justin Jackson 3-pointer that gave UNC the lead for good in the national championship game against Gonzaga. Pinson has led UNC in assists in 44 games in his career – a remarkable achievement for a player who isn’t a point guard.

“That’s my favorite basketball play – making the pass that ends up letting somebody else score,” Pinson said Thursday.

When Pinson is off, though, everything seems out of sorts for the Tar Heels. He couldn’t find enough open seams against Virginia in the ACC tournament final, shooting 1-for-10 and committing a late turnover that he pronounced “terrible.”

Generally, though, Pinson has had a strong senior season. He leads the team in assists, is second in rebounding and is fifth in scoring. He occasionally even has a big scoring game (he had a career-high 25 points in the ACC tournament against Miami). One of only 12 Tar Heels to play in two national title games, Pinson would love to make it to a third.

“In some basketball games, he’s dominated the game without being a great scorer,” Williams said of Pinson. “He’s one of the best leaders in practices, one of the best talkers I’ve ever seen on the court, when it’s very appropriate to talk.

“He talks a lot of other times, sometimes when it’s not appropriate, I guess. But no, he’s a unique individual. He really is. I’ll miss the sucker. So I hope we get to play a few more weeks.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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