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UNC basketball: What the Heels are getting when Cameron Johnson returns

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The Pitt graduate transfer could take the team to new heights.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season with so many question marks, it’s fair to say the North Carolina Tar Heels’ 9-1 start has exceeded expectations. While the non-conference slate hasn’t been quite as difficult as it usually is under Roy Williams, wins against Arkansas, Michigan, and on the road against Stanford could prove valuable come March. What makes this early success even more impressive is the fact that the Heels are doing it without graduate transfer and assumed starter Cameron Johnson.

Now, when I say assumed starter, I mean that many believed he would start before he got injured. The emergence of Kenny Williams, the continued leadership of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, and Roy Williams’ attachment to the two-big lineup make it extremely hard to see Johnson breaking into the starting lineup. Still, allocating a player of Cameron Johnson’s caliber to sixth man duties is a luxury very few teams have.

The aforementioned injury Johnson suffered was a torn meniscus that occurred in practice on November 13th. Following surgery, the redshirt junior was expected to miss four to six weeks, which would put him back in the lineup anywhere from the upcoming road tilt with Tennessee on December 17 to the first ACC game against Wake Forest on December 30. While the latter is much more likely, he should still have plenty of time to get acclimated to the team before postseason play rolls around.

In Johnson, Carolina will be getting an experienced leader with a knack for shooting the ball. Last season for Pittsburgh, Johnson shot 42% from the perimeter, a mark that would have ranked first for the national champion Tar Heels (minimum of 10 attempts). It’s scary to think that a team who just shot 16-22 (73%) from the three point line (albeit against Western Carolina) has potentially not even dispatched its best deep threat. Johnson’s services are not limited to just shooting, though.

At 6-8, his long and lean stature has drawn some comparisons to Justin Jackson. Just as Jackson did for last year’s squad, Johnson has an opportunity to provide solid rebounding from the guard position. The difference is that Jackson’s role as a rebounder was a leisure given the experience in the frontcourt with guys like Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. Johnson’s rebounding prowess will be a necessity for this year’s Tar Heels.

While the trio of freshman bigs have been respectable thus far, it has come as no shock that they’ve failed to fully replace the production of Meeks, Hicks, and Tony Bradley. Last year, these three combined for 20.1 rebounds a game. The freshman bigs have combined for just 12.6. Johnson possesses the size and length to help make up this difference. If he can crash the boards consistently on both ends of the court, Johnson could be a huge asset on the glass.

The last thing Johnson will offer is lineup flexibility for the Tar Heels, who have already rolled out 103 different lineups this season. With Johnson, we could see a greater deal of “small ball” lineups. He is sort of a missing link in that regard as he is capable of playing positions 2-4. Theo Pinson is the team’s most versatile defender, but Johnson can be useful in situations where the opposing team’s four is too tall for Pinson or if the Heels just need to match another team’s small lineup. Offensively, placing two sharpshooters in Johnson and Luke Maye at the four and five spots could make the Heels awfully tough to defend.

Right now, UNC is a top ten team (pending the release of the next AP rankings), so it’s worth tracking the man who could take them to an even higher level. When Cameron Johnson makes his debut in the coming weeks, the North Carolina Tar Heels’ path to repeat as champions becomes that much more attainable.