The 2014-15 season is almost here and in preparation for that we profile the players. Today we look at junior forward Brice Johnson.
Brice Johnson, F, 6-6, 228 lbs
Consider the following numbers:
Offensive Rating: 114.3
Off. reb. rate: 12.1%
Def. reb. rate: 21.7%
The key number there is the first one. Brice Johnson put up over 10 points and six rebounds per game all while playing just 19 minutes per contest. His offensive rating was second best on the team behind Marcus Paige and the rebounding rates were second to Kennedy Meeks. Johnson made 56% of his shots from the floor and 62% from the free throw line. All of those numbers were better than the ones put up by James Michael McAdoo who saw the floor for about 11 minutes more per game than Johnson did.
That statistical snapshot alone sets some lofty expectations for the returning junior big man. Clearly Johnson has the ability to impact the game on both ends. If you extrapolate his numbers out the per 40 minutes basis, Johnson is a double-double kind of player. The question is can Johnson play with a steady enough level of effort and consistency to warrant the playing time needed to improve last season's numbers?
Johnson's skills are certainly not in question. He has shown the capability to hit hook shots and turnaround jumpers in the post. He has the ability to hit face up jumpers away from the basket. Running the floor and filling the lanes on the break is a given for a UNC big man and Johnson will find the opportunities plentiful. His 62% free throw shooting needs to improve but at the same time isn't that far away for being somewhat respectable for a college big man. The only issue with Johnson is his passing acumen in the post and the tendency to be a black hole. UNC has too many weapons to see Johnson force the issue, especially if the defense has collapsed on him.
One primary concern for Johnson and what could be a drop-off from McAdoo last season is on the defensive end. Johnson has the length and athleticism to influence the game with the blocked shot. He isn't John Henson but he's close enough to be able to change the game. The problem for Johnson is positioning and effort. Shot blocking isn't about going for the block every time but knowing when to do so and doing so without giving away fouls. Johnson was prone, at times last season, to go for the block instead of rotate into position. There are instances where the smarter defensive play is to step into the driving lane, put your hands up and make the offensive player take a tough shot versus sizing up a block. Johnson's awareness of this will be crucial in improving his overall defensive game.
On the effort side, it is very much a "motor" issue and going hard on every play regardless of which end of the floor it is on. This is a point of concern when it comes to hedging on a screen at the top of the key then hustling back to position on the block, fighting through a screen or working hard to get into the right position whether it be offense or defense. Roy Williams has talked ad nauseum about Johnson's effort being the key to his overall success. Since UNC has Isaiah Hicks waiting in the wings with the skills and ability to fill the void, Johnson should be plenty motivated to seize whatever opportunities he is given.
Heading into his junior season, Johnson has his physical conditioning to a point he can truly be effective against most opposing big men. His weight gain to 228 pounds should give him the ability to be stronger on the offensive end and not be so easily backed down on defensive. That and improve positioning on defense should help him to reduce his foul rate. Johnson average 2.8 fouls per game last season with four disqualifications. That rates out to six fouls in 40 minutes. UNC has some depth in the post but ideally you would like to avoid to much foul trouble if at all possible.
Johnson has the experience and skill set to make 2014-15 a huge breakout season. The extent to which that happens largely rests with him. UNC's has enough balance and effective perimeter passers to feed the post. The offense should be a closer approximation to the interior first look Roy Williams prefers which means Johnson, Meeks and Hicks should all benefit.