On the good days, when the shots are falling, Brice Johnson can make it seem effortless. The short turnaround jump shots. The easy dunks and layups when he’s in just the right position to receive a pass.
Then there are the times like Tuesday. Johnson, the North Carolina junior forward, stood in the visiting locker room at Georgia Tech wearing a smile of relief. The Tar Heels won by 32 points, despite just two points from Johnson, their second-leading scorer.
“I try to just forget about it after a bad game,” Johnson said after he made just one of his nine shots. “Just move on to the next one. The next one is going to be the biggest one of the year.”
Indeed it will be. No. 19 UNC plays No. 3 Duke on Saturday night at the Smith Center. It’s the regular-season finale for both teams and the rematch of the throwback classic from a couple weeks ago, when Duke erased a 10-point deficit with less than four minutes to play before winning by two in overtime.
Each game UNC plays from here, though, will be, as Johnson said of the Duke game, its “biggest one of the year.” There’s Duke on Saturday. Followed by the start of the ACC tournament next week. Followed by the start of the NCAA tournament in two weeks.
And how far the Tar Heels advance, in a lot of ways, will be determined by how far Johnson can take them. When he’s at his best, he’s among the most productive low-post scorers in the ACC – a player who can sneak past his defender for a quick dunk, or beat him with a turnaround or a short baseline jumper.
But when the other Johnson shows up – the one who had two points at Georgia Tech, and the one who scored just four points in a 58-46 loss against N.C. State last week – the Tar Heels have often had a difficult time. Before Tuesday they were 0-3 in ACC play when Johnson scored in single digits.
In UNC’s nine losses, Johnson is shooting 46.3 percent. During its 21 victories, he has made 60.9 percent of his shots. There is a clear correlation between his performance and whether UNC wins or loses.
Which could be one reason coach Roy Williams has remained so tough on Johnson. Williams isn’t often quick to praise Johnson, who still seems to be growing into his lanky 6-foot-9 frame.
For one thing, Johnson’s defense and hustle are a constant target of Williams’ ire. Then there’s Johnson’s overall “motor,” as Williams has put – a motor that Williams has often found to run on fumes, if it’s running at all.
Williams all but laughed earlier this week when asked whether Johnson had achieved a desirable level of consistency. Williams had the numbers ready to cite off the top of his head, as if he’d been thinking about them.
“You can say (he’s consistent), but I think the stats won’t hold it up,” Williams said before his team’s victory at Georgia Tech. “Two games ago he was 1-for-6 (against N.C. State), and then he turns around and has 22 (at Miami). So I don’t think consistency would be a very apt description.
“I love him. I really do. I’m just trying to push him, push him, push him.”
Johnson’s past five games have been especially illustrative of his dramatic swings. He had 18 points and 12 rebounds in the loss at Duke, and his play was one of the primary reasons the Tar Heels led by 10 late in regulation. He fouled out early in overtime, with UNC leading 83-81.
When Johnson followed that performance with another strong game – 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting – in UNC’s first victory against Georgia Tech, it seemed that perhaps he really was becoming more consistent. But then came a miserable game against N.C. State.
Followed by one of his best games – 22 points and 11 rebounds – in a victory at Miami. Followed, again, by another quiet offensive game on Tuesday night.
“My shot wasn’t going in,” Johnson said. “It was just rimming out every time. There’s nothing I can do about it now.”
For one night, at least, it didn’t hurt the Tar Heels. Joel Berry, the freshman guard, made three 3-pointers and finished with a season-high 15 points. Justin Jackson, another freshman, played well and finished with 13. Six UNC players scored at least eight points at Georgia Tech, and that balance mitigated the loss of Johnson’s production.
UNC hasn’t been so fortunate at other points this season, though, and it’s difficult to envision the Tar Heels advancing all that far in the postseason – in either the ACC tournament or NCAA tournament – without Johnson at his best. Or at least close to his best.
The Tar Heels are 5-4 when Johnson fails to score in double figures and they’re now 1-3 in ACC play, with the one victory coming on Tuesday night. Johnson spoke with appreciation about his teammates coming to his rescue.
Williams, meanwhile, is still waiting to see that elusive consistency.
“You need the guys that you’re depending on to be able to depend on them every game,” he said. “But he was huge for us Saturday (at Miami) … he was big for us and we need him to be really big if we’re going to be the kind of team that we want to be.”
By the numbers
46.3 % Brice Johnson’s shooting percentage in UNC’s nine losses.
60.9 % Johnson’s shooting percentage in UNC’s 21 victories.