If Roy Williams wanted to advertise and promote exactly what his Tar Heels are all about, Brice Johnson would be a fantastic, high-flying spokesperson. Johnson spent four years in Chapel Hill, beginning as a highly-touted freshman getting limited minutes behind future NBA players James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock.
From there, he steadily gained more minutes and more trust from Williams, but there was still frustration over his emotion and attitude on the court. Everybody knew Johnson had all the skills and talent to be one of the nation’s best, yet his emotional outbursts, stupid fouls, and lack of mental focus found him sitting on the bench far too often.
After an uptick in his junior season (scoring up to 12.9 per game and establishing a firm place in the UNC starting lineup), Johnson finally took all that promise, potential, athleticism and heart and promptly dunked over everybody in his historic senior year. Averaging a career high 28 minutes a game, he scored 17 points per game (on an absurd 61.4% from the field) while bringing down 10.4 rebounds, swatting 1.5 shots and converting from the foul-line with efficiency (78.3%). He even had some of the best individual performances of the season (39 points and 23 boards at FSU, 18 and 21 at Duke), forever etching his name and his highlights in Carolina history.
Johnson had done exactly what Williams and the staff had wanted when they signed him as a wiry, lean high school senior from South Carolina: learn and mature from the bench, improving both his game and his mind, until he blossomed into a legit star.
Johnson, after proving himself through those four years, will now take on a new challenge, the NBA. Just a few weeks ago, he was drafted 25th overall by the Los Angeles Clippers and looks to be an energetic big man backing up the Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan combination. For months, draft experts had been predicting Johnson going as high as the late lottery with others suggesting he might slip to the second round. But, certainly aided by his progression at UNC and his mind-boggling leaping abilities, Johnson and his economical haircut are now, ironically enough, LA Clippers.
It’s a smart move by the Clippers organization, who have struggled in recent seasons to find meaningful pieces to assist their loaded starting lineup. Johnson immediately becomes a viable option off the bench and appears poised to thrive in smaller lineups at the center spot. There won’t be any pressure for Johnson to dominate like he did in college, and he’ll be a good, high-energy fit with the backup unit (composed of players like Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Paul Pierce).
Lastly, Johnson is a 22-year-old rookie who went through a lot of growing pains in college. While the NBA is a whole different animal, Johnson is a lot more mature than some of his drafted peers, and he’ll most assuredly get along with and learn from experienced players like Crawford, Pierce and Chris Paul; don’t expect any D’Angelo Russell or Jahlil Okafor type incidents with him. Johnson is a superb pick for the Clippers.
What about the long-term for Johnson? Well, a lot of pundits compared him to Taj Gibson and fellow Tar Heel Brandan Wright during the draft process. The Gibson comparison is particularly apt. Gibson played three solid years at USC and improved, much like Johnson throughout his time on campus. Then, he was drafted 26th by the Chicago Bulls and quickly indicated what a few developmental years in college can do for a player. He actually earned a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team and, in years since, Gibson has been a valuable, consistent player for the Bulls (even finishing second one season for Best Sixth Man).
Johnson definitely projects to have that kind of impact long-term for the Clippers or wherever else he might find himself. He’s super athletic and bouncy, so he’ll be a natural for catching lobs on the fast break and eliminating opponents’ shots on the other end. He developed a deadly mid-range jumper in Chapel Hill, barely ever missing from that spot by the end of his career. That kind of range is so prized in the league right now and, given some time, Johnson might be able to stretch it out for a decent top-of-the-key three-pointer.
Johnson will need to gain more weight and muscle, something he struggled with as a Tar Heel, but his tenacity in going after the ball is innate. Like Gibson, Johnson is probably best meant to come off the bench, but he’ll be more than capable of filling in for a few games at a time should Jordan or Griffin get injured. Off the bench, he’ll do exactly what’s asked of him: dunk, play defense and run. At the very least, Johnson will be one of the better backup bigs in the NBA over his career.
While Coach Doc Rivers isn’t known for playing his young players or developing them particularly well, he does have one shining example of working with an athletic talent to realize the best of his abilities: DeAndre Jordan. Jordan was an extremely raw prospect coming out of Texas A&M, yet he’s become one of the NBA’s best centers, especially in regards to his defense. Johnson doesn’t have the ceiling Jordan did but, if Rivers and company can work with him like they did Jordan, he’ll have a long, fruitful professional career.