There was a time when UNC’s Cam Johnson could barely move his hips. Now he’s all-ACC

A game of H.O.R.S.E with North Carolina’s Cam Johnson

News & Observer journalist Jonathan Alexander takes on Cam Johnson for a game of H.O.R.S.E.
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News & Observer journalist Jonathan Alexander takes on Cam Johnson for a game of H.O.R.S.E.

Cam Johnson bent his knees, spread his feet and put out his arms to get in a defensive stance.

Johnson and his teammates were about to do a defensive drill, but Pittsburgh’s coaches noticed that the 6-foot-8, 200-pound freshman wing with long legs wasn’t low enough in his stance. They wanted his thighs to be nearly parallel to the floor, but they were at more of a 45 degree angle in his stance. It was almost as if he was still standing straight up.

“Spread your feet! Get in a stance!” the coaches yelled out to Johnson.

Johnson tried, but his hips wouldn’t allow it. “Get in a stance!” they yelled again. He couldn’t crouch any further.

Four years later, Johnson has blossomed into a star in his second season at North Carolina after transferring from Pittsburgh, once his hips stopped getting in the way.

Johnson has had issues with his hips for as long as he can remember, but the problem was exacerbated in high school, when he grew from 5-6 to 6-6 in four years. It was a constant pain, his father Gill said, that was the result of a condition called “cam lesion.”

Cam lesion, also known as Femoroacetabular impingement, is a condition in which extra bone grows along one or both of the bones that form the hip joint — giving the bones an irregular shape, according to OrthoInfo. Because they do not fit, the bones rub against each other during movement. The friction in his bones caused pain and limited Johnson’s mobility.

The Johnsons were not initially aware of the condition, but Johnson knew something was wrong and tried fix it with physical therapy.

It would take more than that.

Since Johnson diagnosed the problem and had arthroscopic hip surgery last spring, he has been North Carolina’s most consistent player this year, and one of the best players in the country.

He recently earned first-team all-ACC honors. He leads the Tar Heels in scoring this season, averaging 16.8 points per game and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 47 percent from 3-point range.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Johnson “sensational,” and said Johnson reminds him of Golden State Warriors all-star Klay Thompson.

“He doesn’t need to dribble,” Krzyzewski said. “I think against Wake (Forest) in the seven makes, I think he dribbled once, and that was in transition. ... When a guy is ready to shoot that quick and he’s 6-8, 6-9, that’s a heck of a weapon.”

Johnson credits his improvement on the court to a healthier hip.

“It feels great,” Johnson said. “It’s feeling better every day.”

From 6-feet to 6-6

The first time Mike Rodriguez saw Cam Johnson, he was 6 feet tall. Johnson was entering his junior season in high school and transferred to Our Lady of Sacred Heart outside Pittsburgh. He played point guard and could shoot and take it to the basket, Rodriguez said.

After his junior season, Johnson returned four inches taller. And by the time he finished his senior season, he grew to 6-6. His friends and teammates were amazed.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rodriguez said of Johnson’s growth spurt.

But it came with pain in his hips. Johnson’s routine before each high school game was to start stretching three hours prior. He’d take a break, get some shots up, then stretch some more. He’d shoot again and sometimes his hips would tighten minutes before the game. So he stretched again.

Games were another issue. Running into a screen was the worst. If he hit the top part of his leg, the ache would last for 15 minutes. The day after a game or practice, he’d feel stiffness in his hips.

“It was rough,” Johnson said.

He knew something was wrong. In college, he talked to multiple doctors, and some recommended he might need surgery at some point. But Johnson didn’t want to miss time and didn’t know how his body would react to the surgery. He decided to try physical therapy and hoped it would get better then.

It didn’t fully solve the problem. Johnson continued to deal with the hip pain through college.

“Everyday he struggled with that,” Gill Johnson, his father, said. “I thought it was his flexibility as well, because that’s what they were telling me.”

Cam Johnson transferred to North Carolina from Pitt in 2017. His father said they didn’t find out he had a cam lesion until he got to UNC.

‘Not in pain’

A week after the 2017-18 season finished, North Carolina’s head athletic trainer, Doug Halverson, grabbed Johnson in the hallway of the Smith Center. Earlier in the season, the two talked about hip surgery. At the time, Johnson wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to miss the offseason before his final year.

So in the hallway, Halverson asked him again.

This time Johnson wanted to think about it. He talked it over with his family and a friend who had the same surgery. He also talked to multiple doctors and ultimately decided he had no choice.

Johnson was tired of dealing with the hip.

“I hope to play as many years as my body lets me, and if I were to keep dealing with those kind of pains, it would have been a lot more difficult,” Johnson said.

Johnson underwent an arthroscopic hip procedure in April in Minnesota. He rehabbed and returned to the court in the preseason. Johnson immediately noticed the effects of the surgery. He was able to move his hips in ways he had never done before.

On Dec. 15, when the Tar Heels played Gonzaga, Johnson took a Euro step around a defender and scored. A Euro step is a basketball move in which a player picks up his dribble, takes a step in one direction, then takes a step in another direction before laying it up. That was a first for Johnson, whose hips previously wouldn’t allow it. He can also get lower and spread his feet in a defensive stance now, finally.

He’s not as sore and stiff after practices and games. Johnson said practicing and conditioning are more enjoyable.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Johnson no longer has the grimace in his face that he once had when running or playing defense.

“Some of the drills in the past he struggled with, he hasn’t struggled with this year,” Williams said. “The biggest thing in my mind, mentally, for him, is that he’s not in pain.”

‘10 years younger’

Johnson, who is now 6-9, 210 pounds, has been the Tar Heels’ most consistent player this season. He has led the third-ranked Tar Heels in scoring 12 times in their 31 games. UNC (26-5, 16-2) is 11-1 in those games. He is first in the ACC and fourth in the country in 3-point percentage.

With a healthier hip, he hopes to help his team go deep in the ACC tournament this week, and eventually win a national championship.

During Johnson’s senior speech on Saturday, he first thanked his parents for their support. They were there for him through all his injuries. They were at his bedside after his surgery.

He last thanked Halverson and North Carolina’s strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian for helping take care of him.

“I might be 23 now, I might be two years older than when I got here, but I feel 10 years younger and it’s all because of you guys,” Johnson said.

Johnson said having the hip surgery is the best decision he has made for his career. There was a time when getting in a defensive stance was difficult.

Now he’s Euro-stepping and trying moves he’s never tried before.

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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