BROOKLYN — The running commentary on No. 12 Villanova of late is that Jay Wright’s club doesn’t have a star, that he his roster full of selfless, faceless, quality veteran players, none of who shines brighter than anyone else on the roster.
And to a point, I understand the argument. There are no future lottery picks on Villanova, which is part of the reason that few players on the Wildcats get the kind of publicity is heaped upon the likes of Jahlil Okafor or Karl Towns or Cliff Alexander. They are balanced — six guys average between 8.8 points and 13.0 points — and they are old; Wright starts two juniors, two seniors and a redshirt junior.
But to say that they are without a star is overblown, and it’s a disservice to the player that JayVaughn Pinkston has become.
Tuesday night’s 60-55 win over No. 19 Michigan is a perfect example of what I mean.
Pinkston has gotten off to a rough start this season, averaging just 9.8 points during Villanova’s 5-0 start while shooting only 43.6 perfect from the floor and seeing his field goal attempts and trips to the foul line cut down to freshman levels. On Tuesday night, after having his best game of the season against VCU, Pinkston had just two points in the first 35 minutes and was 1-for-6 from the floor when Villanova gained possession, down by one, with less than two minutes left.
But despite the off night, it was Pinkston — not Ryan Arcidiacono, not Dylan Ennis, not Darrun Hilliard — that Wright went to on three straight possessions with the game on the line. Pinkston rewarded him with two buckets on those three possessions, including a layup after overpowering the smaller Caris LeVert in the post with just 16 seconds remaining.
That was the game-winning bucket.
“It was frustrating at first because my team needed me,” Pinkston said. “But I’m a senior leader, and that’s what we do in this program. Step up and make the big time plays, so that’s what I did.”
Part of the reason that those early struggles were frustrating for Pinkston was that this was his homecoming. He’s a Brooklyn native, and this was his first time playing at the Barclays Center, the brand new arena in the Prospect Heights neighborhood. He had 20 friends and family in attendance, and when he was younger, he wouldn’t have been comfortable with a slow start like the one he had on Tuesday.
“In the past he would have needed to come here and get 17, 18, 19, 20. Be the star,” Wright said. “He wants to come here and win. He’s looking at it now like, ‘these are my boys, and I’m bringing them back home with me,’ as opposed to, ‘I’m coming back home.'”
“He’s really grown up.”
That game-winning bucket wasn’t actually the defining play of the evening, which also belonged to Pinkston. He came out of nowhere for a game-saving block of Zak Irvin with seven seconds left, a play almost as impressive as the fact that the referees got the call right. Irvin’s fall looked bad, but wait until the replay. The block was clean:
As nice as that block was, it was a play that had to be made because Pinkston messed up. He was out of position on the inbounds. It was his fault that Irvin was able to receive the pass from Spike Albrecht. You see, the way Villanova designs their baseline out-of-bounds defense is that they have the man covering the in-bounder standing directly between the passer and the rim. His job is to make the pass to a cutter coming down the middle of the lane — which is exactly what Irvin did on Tuesday night — impossible, which allows Villanova to overplay cutters on the perimeter.
But Albrecht threw a little pass fake to his left, which got Pinkston out of position.
I know this because Pinkston told us afterwards.
“I messed up on the play. I didn’t take away the middle, so I just tried to make a play on the ball,” Pinkston said, eliciting laughter from teammate Dylan Ennis and from Wright, who leaned back from the microphones to say “I can’t believe you said that,” to Pinkston.
That honesty shocked Wright. He didn’t need to make himself look bad in front of a throng of media.
“All he had to say was, ‘I made a great block.’ But he admitted it,” Wright said. “We hadn’t even talked about it yet.”
And it wasn’t just that Pinkston acknowledged that he made a mistake, because, Wright says, he would have had no problem apologizing to the locker room after the game. The difference is that he now has the self-confidence to be able to admit it publicly. He could have just basked in the glory of the game-winning play, and none of us would have been the wiser. Wright certainly wouldn’t have thrown his player under the bus. He teammates wouldn’t have said a word. No writer on a deadline was thinking about any potential defensive mishaps. We were all just as excited as every fan in the country was about the exciting finish to a thrilling, November basketball game.
That just goes to show you the role that he’s grown into on this team. Their veteran. Their leader. Their go-to guy in crunch-time.
Pinkston is not a future NBA all-star. He’s not a kid that adores the spotlight. He’s not a great public speaker. When Pinkston’s name is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is his season-long suspension as a freshman. He was young and he reacted poorly to a situation he probably shouldn’t have been in. I’ve done the same in the past, but I’m not a 6-foot-6, 250 pound behemoth.
But Pinkston paid his dues. He didn’t play basketball for a year. He was banned from campus for the second semester of his freshman year, living with a friend of the Wright family while working at a warehouse and paying rent. That’s enough to knock some maturity into any teenager.
JayVaughn Pinkston is not a media darling, as is typically the case for college hoopers when your ability outweighs your potential.
But don’t let that blind you to what he is: Villanova’s star.