North Carolina

From quitter to All-American: The odyssey of UNC’s Brice Johnson

There’s this old story that Roy Williams, the North Carolina men’s basketball coach, likes to tell about Brice Johnson, and about how Williams thought Johnson might quit and leave not long after he arrived on campus the summer before his freshman season.

Williams tells it often to illustrate Johnson’s journey and how far he has progressed during the past three seasons, going from that freshman whose pulse barely registered – that part, perhaps an exaggeration, always makes Williams’ version of the story – to where he is now, an All-American.

Not that Williams is necessarily happy with where Johnson is. If that’s even possible, after all.

“Brice is not the best that he can be,” Williams said of Johnson, a national player of the year finalist who averages nearly 17 points and 11 rebounds per game. “Because he still has some things that he can do even better.”

But now it was Johnson’s turn to tell the story – that old one Williams likes to tell. Johnson on Thursday was standing inside the Tar Heels’ locker room at the Wells Fargo Arena, where on Friday top-seeded UNC will play against No. 5 Indiana in an NCAA tournament East regional semifinal – a trip to the Elite Eight in the balance.

“Yeah,” Johnson, a 6-foot-10 senior forward, began to say, smiling, when reminded of one of Williams’ favorite stories. “I’m not going to lie to you.”

And so Johnson began to recall his first conditioning workout as a skinny, exhausted freshman. There was all that running. And the body-weight exercises – pull-ups and push-ups and the like. And then that phone call after it ended.

“After the first conditioning session, I called my dad,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Hey. I don’t know if I can do this.’ That was the most running I’ve ever done in my life, and I didn’t think I could do it.

“But lo and behold, I’m still here.”

Johnson beamed widely. Lo and behold, he’s still here, indeed, and finally the player Williams expected him to become all along. Or at least closer to becoming that player.

Barometer of success

When UNC plays Friday night, the Tar Heels’ hopes will depend on a variety of factors. They will depend on how UNC’s guards play, and whether Marcus Paige and Joel Berry can outperform Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell.

UNC’s perimeter defense will play a role in the outcome, undoubtedly, given the Hoosiers’ propensity to shoot from the outside, and make shots. And another important element will be whether the Tar Heels can exploit Indiana’s weakness for avoiding turnovers.

More than anything, though, Johnson has become perhaps the single greatest barometer of UNC’s success. When he’s at his best, and when his teammates are rewarding him with opportunities, the Tar Heels haven’t lost this season. When Johnson is not at his best, or when he’s not as involved in the offense, UNC becomes more vulnerable.

It has been something of an odyssey to reach this destination, one where Johnson is such a catalyst. Williams helped him get there. Johnson credits some of his development to his father, Herman, who was Johnson’s high school coach.

Johnson’s teammates, especially Paige, played a role. Even Sean May, the former UNC All-American who returned this season to become an assistant to the director of player development.

“I talked to Brice at the beginning of the year,” May said, “about some things individually that he could accomplish, and I talked to him a little bit about him being the type of player that maybe he didn’t think he could be.

“And just because from the outside looking in, you see the talent. And you’ll see certain glimpses of it and pick up on it in practice, and you’re like, if you could really tap into this, you can be really special.”

Intensity questioned

Some of Johnson’s teammates thought on Wednesday about where he was – physically, mentally, emotionally – when he arrived in Chapel Hill three years ago from tiny Orangeburg, S.C.

Here was Joel James, one of Johnson’s senior classmates, talking about that first conditioning workout, the one Williams often references:

“It wasn’t because it was hard, it was because Brice didn’t have a work ethic back then. Like, honestly, you can ask him and he’ll tell you that he didn’t work hard very much his freshman year. He was just naturally gifted.”

And across the way in UNC’s locker room, there was Paige, Johnson’s roommate and one of his closest friends, remembering that same moment when Johnson reached the end of that workout:

“First time we did weights, we were doing body-weight push-ups and squats and stuff … You know, basic stuff to see how our bodies, our functional strength was. And I didn’t know if this was cut out for (Johnson). Dude could barely do push-ups and chin (ups) and stuff.”

There was another part of it, too, Paige said: “He kept quitting.”

That was Johnson’s reputation when he arrived at UNC – one of a quitter. Soft. Talented but lazy. Gifted but not intense.

Basically the opposite makeup of, say, Tyler Hansbrough, who also is part of the stories Williams like to tell about Johnson. Only in those, Williams uses Hansbrough as a prop, as a comparative measuring stick.

If Hansbrough ranked as a maximum “10” on the intensity scale, Williams like to say, Johnson was a “1” during his freshman season. And early on during his first season, Johnson might not have been even that.

The criticism Williams has directed toward Johnson over the years has become part of the story of this particular UNC team. Regardless of what Johnson does – 25 points and 10 rebounds against Tulane this season, followed by 27, nine against UCLA in the next game – it never seems to be enough.

After UNC’s 106-90 victory on Jan. 4 at Florida State, where Johnson finished with 39 points and 23 rebounds, Williams received the predictable questions about Johnson. Had he finally arrived? Was this the player Williams had been hoping to see all this time?

Brice is Brice

And Williams’ acknowledged Johnson’s progress, sure. It would have been difficult not to after one of the most statistically impressive games in school history. And then Williams said:

“With Brice, you’ve got to understand – Brice is still Brice. Don’t forget that, boys – 1-for-8 (from the field) two games ago or something. Don’t forget that.”

That thought, that “Brice is still Brice” drives Williams’ relentless pursuit of Johnson’s best. Williams remembers how Johnson was when he arrived three years ago, and despite Johnson’s progression in that span, he still has far to travel, Williams believes.

And so he doesn’t let up. Ever. Williams knows he couldn’t be like that with every player. Yet with Johnson, the approach has worked.

“You jump on some guys like that and they go in a shell and go in the locker room and lay down and curl up and cry,” Williams said. “But I’ve gotten on some other guys just as much as I have Brice, but with Brice it’s been a consistent (effort) – I want more from him today.”

Williams went on, as he sometimes does, about Johnson’s defensive deficiencies. The coaches in the ACC selected Johnson to the league’s all-defensive team, yet Williams is quick to point out that Johnson has been UNC’s defensive player of the game once in four seasons.

Johnson’s inability to play defense the way Williams desires limited his playing time during his freshman and sophomore seasons. By his junior season, UNC needed Johnson on the court, anyway, and entering this season Williams needed Johnson to emerge and become more consistent in all aspects.

And lo and behold, to use Johnson’s expression, it happened. Even in practice.

And even in practice on Wednesday, which is a sign that Johnson has developed the consistency he has sought.

“Just today in practice,” James said on Thursday, “Brice got over (on defense) and came over help side, and he just ran by the guy. But freshman Brice, he wouldn’t even come help-side. And so coach stopped practice and asked Brice what he did, and Brice was like, ‘Well I just ran by him instead of stopping to trap the guy.’ And little things like that, you see that Brice understands what he’s doing.”

James brought up the comparison between the two versions of Johnson. The one that has emerged this season. And the one that existed the first three years of his time at UNC.

“This year’s Brice would destroy freshman-year Brice by 45 points, every single time they step on the floor,” James said.

“Freshman-year Brice,” as James put it, was a quitter who doubted whether he’d last at UNC. Johnson on Wednesday didn’t remember exactly what his dad told him when he made that phone call about three-and-a-half years ago – the one when Johnson told him he didn’t know if he’d make it.

“I just know it wasn’t, ‘You can’t come home,’ or something like that,” Johnson said. “I know he was like, you’ve just got to fight through it.”

Johnson was speaking in the middle of his team’s locker room, two victories away from the Final Four, a week after appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a day before the most important game of his life, though if UNC keeps winning those games will continue to grow in magnitude.

“Hey,” Johnson said. “I’m still here. I fought through it and I’m still here.”