UNC Forward Brice Johnson Has Talent

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UNC forward Brice Johnson. Damn, I don’t like talking about this guy. Let’s get one thing straight; I am a Duke fan, and always have been. So it’s safe to say that I do not like Brice Johnson, Roy Williams, and the color powder-blue, and I even have a little grudge against Michael Jordan. I like Christian Laettner and Grant Hill. I would get a tattoo of Coach K on my chest if my girlfriend would allow me.

But I have to say it, I cannot deny it anymore……my goodness, Brice Johnson can ball.

UNC Forward Brice Johnson Has Talent

Coming out of high school, Brice Johnson was a skinny 6’9″ forward ranked 34th overall in his collegiate class. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed. The guy could jump and had a good touch around the rim, but I didn’t see much else. Good for you, North Carolina. Duke had Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, with Rasheed Sulaimon incoming (but don’t get me started on him). I brushed off Johnson. He was too skinny and couldn’t shoot, so I thought he would never really succeed. John Henson was a good player with a similar build who already played for UNC, but I never really thought that Johnson would reach that level. After Johnson’s junior season last year, I thought I was right.

In his sophomore season, Johnson averaged 20 minutes per game and was a solid role player, but nothing more. James Michael McAdoo was the team’s best big man that year (don’t worry, I hate him too), and he was good. Johnson played second fiddle in the front court and was a solid role player, as I predicted. He averaged ten points per game, collected six boards and 1.3 blocks – numbers that aren’t too bad, but not those of a star. He cleaned up on the offensive boards, finished above the rim, and showed that he had the quickness and athleticism to be a defensive disruptor.

In his junior year, Johnson’s numbers got a bit better. He collected a few more rebounds, averaged two more points, and played five more minutes per game. UNC was good that year, but they were not a top team in the nation. Sure, they were a highly ranked team in the pre-season and made the ACC tournament final, but to compare them to the likes of Wisconsin, Virginia, Duke (woohoo) or Kentucky (although no one could truly touch Kentucky that year) would have been wrong.

Coming into this season, I was rubbing my hands together in anticipation. UNC would be led by three seniors, but that didn’t bother me. I assumed Marcus Paige would have another sub-par year, Kennedy Meeks is a load down low but he’s only one player, and Brice Johnson is an above average role player who was slightly better than Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee of my Blue Devils. Duke, on the other hand, had Golden Boy Grayson Allen and the number two recruit in the nation, Brandon Ingram. UNC would be average and Duke would challenge Virginia for the ACC title. What could go wrong?

Brice Johnson put a pin in my balloon.

The senior put on some considerable weight since his freshman year, coming in at 230 lbs. That was expected. But with this added weight, he did not lose any of his considerable leaping ability or quickness. Johnson started off the season extremely effectively. He was scoring at an efficient clip during out of conference play, he continued to dominate the glass, and he showed his skills as a great rim protector. Still, I was a doubter, and I wasn’t the only one. At best, Johnson was an early-mid second round pick in the NBA, and that didn’t seem to be changing much.

Then came UNC’s game against Florida State. Johnson put up 39 points, 23 rebounds, three steals, and three blocks, and shot nearly 88% from the field and 11-16 from the charity stripe. That is quite a stat line. Did I mention that Florida State can play three 7-footers? But hey, it was the game of a lifetime, so he wouldn’t do it again, right?

Maybe he wouldn’t put up Wilt Chamberlain stats every night afterwards, but Johnson certainly kept playing like an All-American. He started changing my mind about him.

I make it a point to watch UNC as much as I can in the hope that I get to see a loss (sadly, I don’t get my wish much), but the only time I REALLY watch and analyse them are during the Tobacco Road Rivalry, and Johnson came to play. Throughout the whole game, I thought he would carry the Tar Heels to an agonizingly easy victory. He was simply unstoppable. Watching him spin baseline for dunks, pick up offensive boards for tough putbacks, run the lane and seal his man high side for layups, I had to admit that he was dominant. Johnson finished the game with 29 points and 19 rebounds. Truthfully, North Carolina would have won had their star player touched the ball in the final quarter of the game, but his teammates could not find him down the stretch. It was in this game that I really noticed his skills. This was his statement game.

What is even more impressive is just how Johnson goes about his nightly business of dominating opposing big men. He rarely has to take a dribble, is hyper efficient, and basically only has to shoot layups. He is always open on the baseline for dump off passes, always rim runs, and is constantly on the offensive glass. He is top-10 in the ACC in blocks per game, block percentage, points per game, total rebounds, and both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. He ranks first in defensive win shares and fifth in offensive win shares, yet is not even in the top ten in usage rate. These are some incredible statistics. They show how much of an effect Johnson has on both sides of the ball.

He has springs for legs, and combined with his 7’3″ wingspan, Johnson is great at protecting the rim and crashing the boards. Many of his points come from offensive rebounds and on fast breaks, which hides how good Johnson is one-on-one.

It really is a stunning display of footwork and fundamentals. He rarely has to put the ball on the deck because he is so good at sealing his man, either under the rim or above him. When Johnson catches the ball at the elbow, he can turn and find slashers on the baseline or open shooters. If he doesn’t manage to get great position in the post (which is rare), he has fantastic quickness and spins off his defender. Johnson’s touch is outstanding, as he has patented his right-hand jump hook (although the left could still use some work). Bigger defenders have nearly no chance of  staying in front of Johnson when he faces up, as he looks very comfortable putting the ball on the floor. Although he barely takes jumpers, Johnson has solid form and has shown the ability to score from the elbow and short corner.

Over the course of a few months, Johnson has gone from a mid-second rounder to a potential lottery pick. Easy NBA comparisons are former UNC standout Ed Davis, a good role player and competitor. However, being a senior, Johnson has more polish than Davis did coming out of Chapel Hill, and can make an immediate impact as an energy guy off the bench. Don’t get me wrong — Johnson’s not an all-star — but he brings certain talents to the table that should see him last a long time in the pros.

As the NBA gets smaller, Brice Johnson should get more dominant. If Johnson plays against a small-ball four, he’ll feast on the glass. Johnson’s quickness and length should allow him to compete on defense, and his effort and will to get any and all loose balls should make him an instant fan favorite. As a Toronto Raptors fan, I have no shame in saying that I would seriously consider drafting this stud to play north of the border. (Hint hint, Masai Ujiri.)

This has been one of the more painful processes I’ve gone through recently, having to praise someone who can put a beat-down on Duke, but heck, the guy deserves it.

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