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Is getting Cameron Johnson better for North Carolina than landing Kevin Knox?

Former Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson committed to UNC. Five star recruit Kevin Knox did not. Why is that a good thing for UNC?

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NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

That noise you heard yesterday was Tar Heel nation unleashing joyful celebrations and sighs of relief. Finally, Pittsburgh officially announced Cam Johnson will be immediately eligible to play for the Tar Heels.

After Kevin Knox decided to join Kentucky and serve as their likely 4th option on the perimeter, UNC had a large Justin Jackson-sized hole left to fill. That hole got deeper when Tony Bradley decided to stay in the NBA Draft.

Johnson helps fill that void. In fact, he may fill it better than Kevin Knox would have.

It is true that Cameron Johnson is a 21-year-old, middle-of-the-pack small forward and transferring from a bottom feeding ACC team. It is also true that Kevin Knox is a five star, top-15 recruit who can play four positions. Knox will likely be an NBA lottery pick. Cameron Johnson likely will not.

How does Carolina come out on top? Three reasons.

Two years of Johnson vs one year of Knox

Let’s get this out of the way. We do not know if Kevin Knox will be a one year player. He might be. He might not be. However, the NBA is clearly his main goal. That is perfectly acceptable. It also brings a large amount of uncertainty to any program not named Kentucky. The 2018 recruiting class is loaded, and UNC has traction with some of the more elite recruits. An OAD type of player can keep a program in limbo during pivotal stretches of recruiting.

However, what Cam may not quite have in overall talent compared to Knox, he makes up with roster stability and ACC experience. Cam Johnson will provide two years of highlights as UNC stays nears the top of the ACC and NCAA kingdom. This season he will help augment Joel Berry, Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams, Jalek Felton and Theo Pinson. That’s enticing.

Even more enticing is 2018 when Cameron Johnson will provide a 6’7 senior perimeter presence when Coby White and Rechon Black join Felton, Woods, Robinson, and Williams. Plus whatever other recruits join the fray (Zion Williamson? Romeo Langford?). Having Johnson locked down now helps shape the needs of the program, while providing a known scoring threat.

Kevin Knox would not have provided that clarity. Additionally, it’s always difficult to know how a stud recruit will fit into the culture of a program. As I explained last month, teams who rely on OAD talent tend to fail to meet expectations, especially among the top programs. For every Tony Bradley or De’Aaron Fox there is a Lonzo Ball.

Whether it’s a difference in priorities or difficulty adjusting to the college game, that kind of talent can be overrated in today’s college game.

Experienced Talent

Why is that roster stability suddenly so important when compared to Knox’s raw potential? Because of the skillset that Cam Johnson brings.

Last year, in his second full season (he received a medical redshirt during his freshman year), he shot 41.7% from three. He averaged 11.9 points while playing over 30 minutes a game. That may not seem like high production, but Pitt had the 298th ranked Adjusted Tempo last season, according to KenPom.com.

For comparison, UNC’s adjusted tempo was 41st in the nation. Though he likely won’t approach 30 minutes a game, a faster paced offense can provide him more shots. His ability to stroke it from behind the arc will provide UNC a guaranteed deep threat. That helps replace some of Jackson’s production. That shooting ability will also be a welcome sight when Joel Berry departs prior to 2018.

Johnson also averaged 5.7 rebounds from the perimeter. That would have made him the second leading rebounder on last year’s UNC team. Admittedly, that average slightly dipped in conference play. Regardless, that will be a necessary skill both this year and next year as the freshman trio of Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, and Sterling Manley learn the college game. As the game continues to evolve, and smaller lineups become more common, a rebounding advantage on the perimeter is a growing hot commodity.

Oh yeah—he made 81% of his 74 foul shots last year. That success rate would have led the Heels this past season.

UNC knows what they are getting with Cam Johnson. Nobody knows what a freshman will truly display until they arrive on campus.

Small Ball Y’all

Speaking of the evolution of the game, Roy Williams has a philosophy at UNC that has been unflinchingly successful. Most of his teams have relied on the three-around-two line-up. Three guards and two big men. Every year. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Had either Kevin Knox committed or Tony Bradley returned to UNC that trend would have likely continued to varying degrees. Now, that may not be possible.

Williams has not been afraid to go with a smaller lineup when it was necessary, such as in 2013. This year it will be necessary, and this time it is a more universally understood and accepted style across the basketball landscape. It’s a trend that may last in Chapel Hill for at least two years. (Don’t tell anyone, but it’s also a trend that’s formed down the road in Durham).

The 2018 recruiting class is extremely thin in regards to traditional power forwards and centers. There’s not a lot of talent that can be infused to a lineup and provide instant results. If Manley, Brooks, and Huffman struggle early in their development, UNC may be forced to continually rely on perimeter based lineups for the next two years.

UNC will certainly have the depth over the next two years to roll out creative lineups. As high school recruits continue to change and evolve, it’s worth asking if UNC will experiment with a slightly different style as well. Cameron Johnson only enhances this possibility.

Simply put, Cam Johnson is the complete package who will affect every facet of the ball game. He has proven he can produce in the toughest basketball conference in the country.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be shocked if Cameron Johnson had a better statistical year than Kevin Knox. While Knox likely has a brighter future in the NBA, Johnson is the better college player now.

Plus, he wants to be a Tar Heel. After Pitt denied his appeal to transfer and be immediately eligible, he committed anyway. Then he went public in an impressive letter, stating his case.

Johnson was willing to fight for his right to come to Chapel Hill and contribute to the reigning national champions. That is an incredibly strong statement to be made by arguably the top graduate transfer in the country, especially as the NCAA cloud still hangs over the program.

Welcome to the family.