Pickeral: Signees Working Hard

Pickeral: Signees Working Hard

by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com


Theo Pinson has seemed relieved, his high school coach says, since signing his national letter of intent to play basketball at North Carolina. Joel Berry, meanwhile, has been "as competitive as ever," since officially signing with the Tar Heels.

And Justin Jackson? He's more confident.

"Thankfully, he doesn't have senioritis—or I-already-signed-itis,'' said Mike Decker, coach of Jackson's Homeschool Christian Youth team in Texas. "He's working as hard as ever ... and I'm sure the other [signees] are, too."

Indeed, while the heralded  trio—ranked the No. 4 incoming recruiting class in 2014 by ESPN.com—won't officially arrive on the Tar Heels' campus until next summer, none of the highly-regarded recruits are resting on their (albeit impressive) laurels. As they aim to propel their high school teams to victories this season, they also are trying to work themselves into positions to push UNC to wins next season and beyond, as well.

A quick check-in on each:


Pinson, a 6-foot-6 wing from Greensboro, has the versatile athletic ability do it all: pass, defend, score, wow.

Now, he's focusing on building the strength to do it all at the next level.

"I think it hit him after he committed [to UNC] last year, that he needed to commit to the weight room ... that if there were guys who were at the same skill level as him, but were stronger than him, they were going to have the edge. So he worked on that," said Wesleyan Christian Academy coach Keith Gatlin.

Pinson's increased time in the weight room - plus an extra focus on the mechanics of his jump shot - have helped him average about 24 points per game this season, so far.

"Theo is stronger, he's posting guys up now, he's finishing at the rim,'' Gatlin said. "He's always been athletic, but now that he's really hitting the weights, he's getting that inner confidence that he can ... take the bumps, go strong to the rim. His best basketball is yet to come."

Pinson and his team will be playing in holiday tournaments in South Carolina and California this month, but fans can view his progression on ESPNU on Jan. 20, against Findlay Prep.


Jackson, a 6-7 wing from Tomball, Texas, practices only twice a week with his home-school team. But Decker continues to see him work, and improve, each time he's on the court.

"As a player, he is extremely smart, he can do so many different things; there's not really a position he can't play,'' Decker said. "And God has gifted him with a graceful long, gifted body. A lot of kids that size can be herky-jerky, and he's really not. He's really smooth and controlled."

So smooth, the good-natured teammate with "a sneaky sense of humor" is averaging better than 10 rebounds and 30 points per game. Jackson, known for an arsenal of shots including a pretty floater, told scout.com recently that he wants to work on building muscle, and improving his 3-pointer.

Both will be on display in the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational in Raleigh later this month.

"None of this has gone to his head,'' Decker said. "What you've got to realize about home schooling is we start at 10 and under, so we have pretty much the 10-year-olds, 12s, 14s, 16s, and 18s in the gym all the time. And he's just as comfortable with his little brothers and sisters [players] as he is with the big guys. He's going to make a terrific teammate at UNC."


By averaging roughly 32 points, point guard Joel Berry is scoring more than he ever has for Lake Highland (Fla.) Prep. But the 6-foot ballhandler's focus on leadership impresses coach Jason Vallery more.

"From a physical standpoint and from a basketball skill standpoint, neither of those have we spent a lot of time saying, 'Hey, you need to add this to your game,'" Vallery said. "He's gotten stronger and faster after rehabbing his knee last season with the injury he had, and we've really focused on the leadership aspect. He's always been a leader by example, and now he's that vocal leader, as well."

During practice, Berry has made a point of sharing more tips and encouragement to his younger teammates, Vallery said. During games, he's been more vocal about inspiring his teammates to match his energy, to push it up a notch. After waiting his turn behind last year's seniors, he's trying to leave a legacy.

Berry's game - and voice - will be on display when he leads his team in the HighSchoolOT.com Holiday Invitational in Raleigh later this month.

"He's an unbelievable talent, but he doesn't flaunt it,'' Vallery said. "He does what needs to be done for his team to win - this year, that's being even more of a vocal leader. And when he gets to North Carolina, I'm confident he'll be able to display that skill, as well."

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