The top two recruits in UNC basketball’s freshman class, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, play the same position. Both small forwards are immensely talented, but if Roy Williams has to choose only one for his starting lineup, Jackson needs to be the pick.
Physically, Jackson (6’7”, 185 pounds) and Pinson (6’6”, 190) are similar enough to be interchangeable. They’re similarly comparable in raw athleticism, though Pinson probably has a slight edge in that department.
The biggest difference between the youngsters is one of playing style. Pinson is a terrific defender with a solid all-around game—a souped-up version of Dexter Strickland wouldn’t be a terrible comparison—while Jackson is more about putting points on the scoreboard above all.
On many other North Carolina rosters, Pinson would be a more valuable addition to the starting five. For next season, though, Jackson’s offense-first skill set is exactly what the team needs.
The Tar Heels return three starters from last year’s squad: Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto and Kennedy Meeks. Of that trio, Tokoto and Meeks are both secondary options at best when it comes to scoring, leaving point guard Paige with a shortage of targets.
Even assuming that offensive-minded Brice Johnson replaces James McAdoo up front, the returnees don’t add up to a typical high-octane offense. Jackson is better-suited to address that deficiency than Pinson.
The disparity becomes even greater when it comes to one of Carolina’s biggest concerns of the offseason: three-point shooting. Leslie McDonald’s graduation leaves Williams with only one player (Paige) who hit more than eight treys all season.
In the interest of giving Paige some much-needed help, Jackson—with his superior jump shot—fits in perfectly alongside defensive stopper Tokoto. Pinson, who’s more of a slasher at this stage, wouldn’t provide the same ability to spread the floor.
That said, Pinson is a superior offensive option to Tokoto right now. It wouldn’t be too surprising to see the veteran (who’s no more of a natural shooting guard than the freshmen) shifted to a reserve role. Pinson and Jackson starting on the wings together would head off any frustration over playing time while giving UNC its best offensive lineup.
If the Tar Heels go small—unlikely as a starting lineup but probable during the course of some games—a similar argument applies. Pinson and Tokoto together make a formidable defensive combo, but Jackson’s jump-shooting prowess would still be an essential ingredient to get the most out of the offense.
It’s also worth noting that Jackson isn’t a liability on defense, any more than Pinson is on offense. They’re just better at their respective specialties, and Jackson’s expertise is knocking down jump shots. The same skill set that helped him shoot 11-of-14 at the McDonald’s All-American Game makes him the right man to spearhead Carolina’s offense next season.