Asked what areas Brice Johnson had to improve defensively to play a bigger role on his team, North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t mince words.
“Position. Sweat. A lot of things,” Williams said Thursday.
Williams isn’t in a position to wait for the talented 6-foot-9 sophomore forward to come to that awakening. With almost no outside-shooting threat to speak of beyond Marcus Paige – as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald remain in their increasingly bizarre NCAA purgatory – the Tar Heels need all the scoring they can get on the inside.
Johnson is their most capable player in that regard, but his deficiencies elsewhere have conspired to keep him out of the starting lineup, with Williams instead using the more defensively reliable Joel James alongside James Michael McAdoo.
“He’s had so far to come,” Williams said. “I’m really proud of him. What he’s doing is really difficult, because I’m on his case all the time to play harder and do it on the defensive end, and he’s sitting back and saying, ‘Yeah, but I can put that ball in the basket.’ It’s human nature.”
But as the Tar Heels become accustomed to this new reality without Hairston and McDonald – “I’m just trying not to waste my time thinking about that,” Williams said – Johnson’s development may hold the key to their future success, especially against opponents with as much size as Kentucky, which visits the Smith Center on Saturday.
“I think we’re just finding what works,” said Paige, the only player on the roster who has made more than two 3-pointers. “As a perimeter unit, shooting 3s isn’t a strength of ours. We’re not jacking up 12 3s, 14 3s a game between the three of us. We understand our strengths are inside.”
At the moment, Johnson ranks second on the team in scoring despite playing only 20 minutes a game – more than James, who has started every game, but less than any of the other starters. He has yet to play more than 25 minutes, even in games where he has scored at a point-per-minute pace. At this point in his North Carolina career, Johnson hasn’t been good enough defensively to get to the 30-minute mark, where he might really be able to do some damage offensively.
And he could do some damage. He’s the team’s most dangerous scorer in the post, as efficient offensively as Paige, who leads the Tar Heels in scoring. Johnson is making a team-high 62.2 percent of his field goals and leads the team in rebounding at 6.9 per game.
“Sometimes, he’s an automatic bucket on the blocks,” Paige said.
Freshman Kennedy Meeks, the team’s best post passer, has similar offensive ability and defensive issues, but Johnson is a year further along and more consistently productive. According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, Johnson’s statistical profile resembles that of Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in his second and final year at Ohio State in 2012, when he was a first-team all-American.
So what’s it going to take to get Johnson more playing time, if not in the starting lineup? Williams said that Johnson not only led the Tar Heels in scoring against UNC-Greensboro last weekend but received his first positive defensive grade in the Tar Heels’ last game, which may open the door to a bigger role. North Carolina needs him to push his way through that door sooner rather than later.