Freshmen Impressions


NASSAU, Bahamas – North Carolina’s preseason trip to the islands provided a glimpse into the potential of its highly touted freshman class.

The rookie trio of Joel Berry Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson played significant minutes in UNC’s pair of exhibition games at the Sir Kendal Isaacs Gymnasium south of downtown Nassau over the weekend.

Berry, a 6-0, 188-pound point guard, totaled 18 points on 6-of-21 shooting (2-of-13 from 3), seven assists, three turnovers and six steals in 44 minutes of playing time.

Jackson, a 6-8, 190-pound wing, was second on the team in scoring both games, tallying 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting (1-of-4 from 3), pulling down eight rebounds (4 OR) and committing five turnovers in 35 minutes.

Pinson, a 6-6, 192-pound wing, started at the two-guard on Saturday and finished the weekend with 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting, seven rebounds, and seven assists against two turnovers.

The trio’s versatility in playing not only inside and out, but also on both ends of the court, stood out during the pair of exhibition contests.

“I think Justin, Joel and Theo are all three basketball players,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told following Saturday’s 109-52 win over the Bahamas All-Stars. “They really are. They can do multiple things; they’re versatile. Joel and Justin are good shooters. Theo has got to work on his shot and get it to where he wants it to be.”

Jackson, who played primarily at the three with a brief stint in a small lineup at the four, scored practically every way imaginable. His length allows him to be effective underneath on the post and on the boards, while his ball-handling and quickness pair well with his shooting ability on the perimeter.

The Tomball, Texas native collected a Nate Britt miss from the wing underneath and scored on the putback. He flashed to the right elbow and knocked down the 15-foot jumper before driving the lane for a layup. He scored on a give-and-go with Kennedy Meeks and later knocked down a free throw. And then Jackson also drained a 3-pointer – a second one was good from NCAA depth, but not FIBA length – and scored on a post move in which he set the defender on his right hip on the right block and spun quickly to his left for a drop step and layup.

“Justin’s just amazing,” sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks said. “That post move down here, I already told him that I was going to steal it. It was great because he spun off his defender so easy. Justin can just do certain things, and he’s had some great practices, so you know he’s going to be a great player.”

Jackson played a positive role in the final seconds of Friday’s 84-83 loss to the Providence Storm. His post defense forced a miss and he corralled the rebound with UNC holding an 83-81 lead with under 30 seconds to play and then grabbed two offensive rebounds on the Tar Heels’ final possession.

“The ball seems to find his hands,” Williams said. “We shot an air ball and he came up with it and laid it up. He just does that.”

Pinson’s long frame and athleticism allows him to thrive in transition and on the defensive end. He won’t be classified as a sharpshooter from the wing, so his points will likely come on the break, on the boards and off slashing and penetration.

Pinson had a pair of highlight plays in Nassau – one, a towering rise for an offensive rebound over two defenders and a putback, and the other an emphatic slam dunk in the paint that brought the Tar Heel bench to its feet. The former play came during a string of plays for Pinson that included an assist to Jackson Simmons for a jumper from the free throw line in the secondary break and a 3-pointer from out front.

The Greensboro, N.C. product played at the two alongside of Marcus Paige and shifted to the three to accommodate a variety of combinations that included two point guards on the floor.

One of those point guards was Berry, who represents a strong body despite his youth. The Apopka, Fla. native showed glimpses of his strength on several drives to the basket, including one in which he made contact and still converted the basket for a plus-one opportunity.

Berry also displayed an ability to push the tempo and worked well alongside both Paige and Britt, often rotating off the ball with the latter. Paige noted that he can play the off-guard position with Berry as well as Britt this year, whereas last season he was limited to that role just when Britt was on the floor.

“He’s a competitor,” Paige said of Berry. “He’s a lot stronger than Nate and me. He’s a different type of guard; somebody who’s more physical. He can knock down shots. He struggled to knock down shots here, but I think we all did on Day 1. So I like what he brings to us and he gives us more lineup options.”

Berry also showcased his passing ability, finding Jackson from the corner for the aforementioned elbow jumper and then dumping to Meeks under the basket for a layup off an inbound play.

“I think they made some nice plays, all three of them,” Williams said. “They made some mistakes, too.”

The miscues, by and large, were not due to gross negligence or a deficiency of talent in any manner, but rather a simple lack of experience. Which, of course, is what this preseason trip to the Bahamas was primarily about for this freshman class.

Shortly after entering Friday’s game for the first time in the opening quarter, Berry received an outlet pass on the right sidelined and promptly air mailed a crosscourt pass-ahead to J.P. Tokoto for a turnover. In the fourth quarter, Berry failed to establish solid position on a would-be charge in transition, which allowed an offensive rebound and putback. And with 1:35 to play and UNC clinging to an 82-79 lead, Berry was unable to work around a trap near midcourt and was called for a 10-second violation.

Pinson attempted a skip pass from the right wing to Jackson on left wing, but the pass was too low and was tipped before Jackson managed to corral the ball. In the final minutes of Friday’s loss, Pinson allowed an offensive rebound that resulted in a jumper to cut UNC’s lead to 82-81. And with 25 seconds to play, Pinson missed a pair of free throws that would have given the Tar Heels a four-point lead.

Williams noted that he once watched Pinson knock down 21 out of 22 free throws in a high school game.

Jackson’s errors were more subtle. He drove to the paint from the left wing, but lost the ball upon contact, highlighting the one area where he can most improve his game – building strength. On another drive to the basket, Jackson appeared to second-guess his decision and attempted a fumbling pass that was intercepted on the block.

The value in Friday’s tough loss, however, can be found in the fact that all three freshmen joined Paige and Meeks on the court down the stretch. That type of experience is difficult to manufacture in a typical practice setting.

“They’re so comfortable already that once they adjust to the speed and physicality, I think things are going to click for them faster than it did for my class,” Paige said.

Their play thus far - in pickup, practice and in the Bahamas scrimmages – have their teammates feeling confident about the 2014-15 season.

“There’s no drop off from last year,” Hicks said. “We’re only getting better with those three.” Recommended Stories

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