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Theo Pinson: a diamond in the rough with a chip on his shoulder

Bryan Fonseca features two-way player Theo Pinson in this NetsDaily exclusive, which includes perspective from his mentor, Keith Gatlin, Pinson’s head coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy

Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Clearly, the Brooklyn Nets saw something.

Whether it was during pre-draft workouts …

Or even before that, during the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center, where he had a career-best 25 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in the quarterfinals …

“Yeah, I played well in the Barclays Center,” Theo Pinson told NetsDaily at Media Day. “I guess they took account of that.”

Though, he went undrafted on June 21, the Nets wanted Pinson here in some capacity, despite not picking him at 29 or 40. They didn’t even wait until the night ended to call.

“Literally the draft wasn’t even over yet,” Pinson added, reflecting on draft night where 60 names were called, none of them his.

The versatile 6’7” wing then paused momentarily and chose his words carefully.

“Those guys deserve what they got. They worked just as hard as me,” he said, talking about the 60 who were drafted. “Apparently, they did something to get them where they are but I just felt like I played the game the right way. I’ve done it in college; we won games. I don’t understand why you don’t want winners, but at the same time, I’m happy with where I’m at and I’m glad that I’m a Brooklyn Net.”

A four-year starter for Roy Williams’ North Carolina squad, Pinson was part of the 2017 NCAA championship team and his teams won 115 games, losing only 37 ... a .756 winning percentage.

“He’s a unique young man that I’ve really, really enjoyed,” said Williams near the end of Pinson’s career in Chapel Hill. “In some basketball games, he’s dominated the game without being a great scorer. He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen in practice. He’s one of the best talkers I’ve ever seen on the court when it’s very appropriate to talk. I’ll miss the sucker.”

Never mind UNC, Pinson isn’t long removed for his glory days spent at Wesleyan Christian Academy, a pre-kindergarten-through-12 private school in North Carolina. In high school, the Greensboro, North Carolina native became state’s Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American in 2014.

That 2014 class, where a five-star Pinson ranked 10th in the ESPN 100, has since produced a collection of NBA talent, including six other current or former Nets from Jahlil Okafor to D’Angelo Russell to Isaiah Whitehead.

His high school basketball head coach and mentor, Keith Gatlin, spent much of the off-season with Pinson, including draft night, which he vividly recalled.

“I could see the disappointment on his face when he wasn’t getting drafted. I know Theo, and we both felt the same: We thought he was better than a lot of guys that got drafted before him,” coach Gatlin, a newly hired assistant at High Point University, told NetsDaily over the phone last week.

As the draft concluded and with a commitment from the Nets, Pinson told Gatlin to meet him in the gym the following morning at 8 a.m. A few days later, it was on to Brooklyn, then Las Vegas. The Nets went 0-5 after a series of injuries, international buyout issues, etc. deprived them of near half the team. But Pinson didn’t disappoint.

The Nets themselves were more than a little blown away. Asked if the team had worked with him on his shot before he hit Vegas, Pinson responded: “No – They even told me, ‘We didn’t expect you to come in and shoot 42% (from three) … good.’”

It was his lack of deep shooting that had hurt his draft stock. After all, he had hit only 25.7 percent of his three’s in four years at UNC.

It was no surprise to Gatlin, who met Pinson, then a seventh grader, last decade. He says Pinson’s Las Vegas shooting form can be the norm. He compared his protégé to Bruce Bowen. Not in terms of playing style, but as an undrafted rookie who came into the NBA with a poor perimeter shooting background, which elevated in the NBA due to style of play, which could be the case with Kenny “green light” Atkinson as the new head coach.

Pinson agreed.

“They encourage you to shoot here. If they don’t shoot it, you get yelled at,” offered Pinson, “I think the biggest thing with everything is confidence. We have so many guys who are sort of similar to me, like Spencer (Dinwiddie). I’ve just been watching him a lot during this off-season, just how he plays the game and controls the game at his size, the way he handles the ball and make plays.”

Gatlin says he’s noticed another change in Pinson. He’s visibly leaner, thanks to improved nutrition, Gatlin says.

Like Dinwiddie (and Caris LeVert), part of Pinson’s college tenure was marred by serious injury. He broke his left foot in high school and again as a freshman at UNC, and later broke his right foot as a junior.

“As soon as he got hurt in Carolina I texted him. He’s like a son to me. He just channeled that into the right way, like I knew he would. I actually think I was more down than Theo was,” Gatlin said with a chuckle.

And that’s likely because of the relationship between the two.

Years ago, as Pinson continued his ascent up the high school ranks, he elected to stay at Wesleyan Christian, where they later won two state titles – one with a healthy Harry Giles, now withe Kings – rather than transfer to bigger schools who were snooping around, which spoke volumes to Gatlin. (Giles subsequently did make that move.)

“When I first got Theo, I was in a private school sector where we couldn’t recruit a lot like Oak Hill and IMG and other schools like that,” recalled Gatlin. “Theo was asked to come to all the big schools, and I knew he was special because he could’ve left, easily, but he believed in me and in our program. He said, ‘Man, I have everything I need right here, coach. I’m staying.’ That said a lot about him because young men have so many people in their ear. That was my defining moment of him. It showed so much of his character.”

Character, that translates onto the court.

By nature, he facilitates because he wants to see people around him better. It was an attribute developed in the ninth grade, playing with and against juniors and seniors on a regular basis.

At first, they wouldn’t let him shoot, but it wasn’t long after until he was the one being deferred to.

Ultimately, he became one of the most versatile players in the country, who later dished out 5.1 assists per game as a college senior. The assists capped off a senior stat-line that also included 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals while guarding many of the best players in the ACC, even including Duke’s Marvin Bagley, a 6’11” power forward who went second overall to the Sacramento Kings.

In fact, he became the first Tar Heel ever to average at least 10 points, five rebounds and five assists in a season.

Yet still, a “Theo Pinson” name card was not filled out on draft night, not even by the Nets.

“I think he can be successful in the NBA,” coach Williams said of Pinson before the draft. “He’s something that the NBA wants: They want athletes, they want shooters, they want playmakers – I’m trying to get people to look at him as a point guard. He wasn’t called that with our team because we had a pretty good guy at the point guard spot (Joel Berry) Theo was more of a playmaker than anybody that we had.”

In a short period of time, Sean Marks and the Nets coaching and performance staffs have demonstrated an ability to find players in unconventional setting, then develop them into significant contributors, here or elsewhere.

Dinwiddie was a G Leaguer who struggled to find time with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls. Yogi Ferrell – the original Sean Marks undrafted discovery in 2016 – has since become a rotation player. And LeVert, who easily could’ve gone unselected in 2016 – no mock draft had him higher than 38th – was a gamble by the Nets at 20th overall.

It was Pinson’s dream to be drafted, and he’s inherently competitive, but his attention is turned to the here and now, a two-way opportunity that the soon-to-be 23-year-old feels he can cash-in on. After all, he can’t let coach Gatlin’s sixth grade son down. Pinson is his favorite player.

“It’s just something else to put a chip on my shoulder. Just understanding I was undrafted and a lot of teams passed up on me. But it’s alright. I went to college, did what I wanted to do, and I’m here now to see if I can get an NBA Championship and win one at all three levels,” he said.

“I think it’s been a blessing in disguise to come to Brooklyn as far as, we get here so early to get work in. I’ve been here two months and I feel like I’m ahead of the game from the other rookies because they been doing their own thing and not with the team as much. I’ve been in the gym with all these NBA coaches with my teammates so I’ve been learning a lot.

“I’m here, in Brooklyn, and I’m excited,” he added, with a smile, a head nod and a hint of optimism.