How Cam Johnson’s return could change the rest of UNC’s basketball season

Roy William’s report card on Cameron Johnson’s first game back

Cameron Johnson returned to play following knee surgery against Wofford on Wednesday, December 20, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Johnson scored ten points in 17 minutes of play.
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Cameron Johnson returned to play following knee surgery against Wofford on Wednesday, December 20, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Johnson scored ten points in 17 minutes of play.

All things considered, Cam Johnson’s left knee felt fine.

But the North Carolina guard was hurting in a different way after his first game with the Tar Heels.

“This really hurts,” Johnson said after UNC lost 79-75 to Wofford on Wednesday. “And to come back and have this be my first game, it hurts a little bit more.”

No. 5 UNC (10-2) will be a different team with a healthy Johnson in the lineup. The Heels face Ohio State (10-3) on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in New Orleans.

Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh, was able to help the Tar Heels in his first game of the season. The long, 6-8, 210-pound wing scored 10 points in 17 minutes.

He was 1 of 5 from the 3-point line but scored seven of his 10 points from the foul line. He added three rebounds, an assist and a steal.

It was a relatively good start but not one that satisfied Johnson.

“Going out there (Wednesday), I did not play my best game by any means,” Johnson said. “I had some struggles, everything that comes back with getting in the flow of the game, all the challenges, I kind of faced those.”

Johnson didn’t show any signs of being slowed by knee surgery, which was done on Nov. 15 to repair meniscus damage in his left knee.

North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (13) collides with Wofford’s Keve Aluma (24) on a fast break during the first half on December 20, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

He missed the first game of the season with a sore neck and then the subsequent 10 games recovering from surgery. UNC coach Roy Williams was encouraged by Johnson’s first game but said the plan was to only use Johnson for 8 to 10 minutes.

“I gave him more minutes than I wanted to,” Williams said. “He was winded out there at the end.”

Johnson averaged 11.9 points and 4.5 rebounds at Pitt last season. He also led the Panthers in 3-pointers (78) and 3-point percentage (41.5).

The hope, when Johnson finally landed at UNC in June – after an initial dispute with Pitt about going to another ACC school – was that he would be able to fill some of Justin Jackson’s numbers (18.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg).

Jackson was the ACC player of the year and led the Tar Heels to a national title, so those are big shoes to fill. However, Johnson definitely gives Williams some lineup flexibility.

UNC’s most productive combination against Wofford was a “small ball” lineup with Johnson, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye at the three forward spots together.

That lineup outscored Wofford 18 to 12 in 6 minutes and 58 seconds. Rebounding is the UNC coach’s primary concern but that lineup had a 6-to-5 rebounding edge.

Senior guard Joel Berry said it was important to get Johnson back.

“He helped us out, especially spreading out the floor,” Berry said. “I think it was a good first game to come back and get his feet up under him.”

The season is 12 games old, and there’s only one more game before ACC play begins, but UNC is just starting to figure out the team it will be. Johnson will be a big part of that.

He wasn’t happy with how his UNC career started. He has a plan on how to change that.

“I’ll get back in the gym,” Johnson said. “I’ll shoot more. I’ll get my conditioning back up and hopefully try to come along. Because a loss like that, to be my first game back, it’s tough.”

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

No. 5 UNC vs. Ohio State

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans

TV/radio: CBS, 106.1-WTKK

Ohio State (10-3)

G C.J. Jackson 13.0 ppg, 4.4 apg

G Musa Jallow 4.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg

F Jae’Sean Tate 12.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg

F Kaleb Wesson 12.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg

F Keita Bates-Diop 18.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg

UNC (10-2)

G Joel Berry 17.1 ppg, 3.5 apg

G Kenny Williams 13.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Theo Pinson 8.6 ppg, 5.2 apg

F Luke Maye 19.3 ppg, 10.6 rpg

F Garrison Brooks 6.8 rpg, 4.6 rpg

Storyline: The Buckeyes, under first-year coach Chris Holtmann, have a 2-0 record in the Big Ten but are 0-1 against ACC foes (L, 79-65 to Clemson). With Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop, the Buckeyes will try to duplicate Wofford’s interior success against the Tar Heels. ... UNC hasn’t lost consecutive nonconference games since the 2010-11 season (Minnesota, Vanderbilt in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off).

Joe Giglio