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Cam Johnson: More than a shooter

Cam Johnson came to UNC known as a three-point specialist. This season he has been so much more.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When Cam Johnson transferred to North Carolina last summer, fans (and I’d assume the coaching staff), breathed a sigh of relief. Fresh off missing out on prized recruit Kevin Knox who committed to Kentucky, the Heels were in dire need of a wing to help replace Justin Jackson. While nobody expected one player to replicate Jackson’s 18.3 points per game, it was clear that a serious void existed.

Johnson’s “recruitment” was not without drama as Pittsburgh attempted to block him from going to certain schools - specifically ACC schools. Then the Panther administration relented, but indicated he could only transfer within in the conference if he sat for a season. Since Johnson was a graduate transfer he technically did not have to sit out any seasons. More enticingly, Johnson was the rare grad transfer who had two year years of eligibility — if he chooses — because he had finished his undergrad degree in three years. Finally, common sense prevailed, and Johnson was a Tar Heel.

Most fans saw his 41.7% success rate from behind the arc, and instantly thought the Heels were getting a dead-eye shooter to stretch the defense. Any other strengths or weaknesses were put off to the side - even though at the time, I touched on a few reasons why he was a better fit for the Heels than Knox. Our own Brandon Anderson also re-visited this issue last month. Based on Kentucky and Knox’s roller coaster of a season, I’m pretty confident in our assessments.

However, looking at last season’s numbers, it was also noticeable that the Heels were not going to experience a Niagara Falls-like drop in production. It’s never easy to replace a player once they send their jersey to the rafters, but Johnson was much more than your normal newcomer. Here are a mixture of traditional and advanced stats between JJax and Cam. To best account for similar competition, these are for the 2016-2017 ACC games only

JJax vs CJ 2017 (Part 1)

Player Games Min Pts ORB DRB TRB Asst ORB% DRB% TRB%
Player Games Min Pts ORB DRB TRB Asst ORB% DRB% TRB%
Justin Jackson '17 18 32.6 18.9 1.7 2.8 4.6 2.3 5.6 10 7.7
Cameron Johnson '17 18 35 11.4 0.6 4 4.6 2.2 1.9 13.6 7.8

JJax vs CJ (Part 2)

Player 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORtg DRtg EFF(+/-)
Player 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORtg DRtg EFF(+/-)
Justin Jackson '17 4.1 8.3 49.7 2.9 7.8 37.1 2.1 2.9 71.2 118.6 109.1 9.5
Cameron Johnson '17 1.2 2.6 44.7 2.4 6.1 40.4 1.8 2.2 82.1 116.6 113.1 3.5

I’m not going to argue that Jackson wasn’t the better player. He was. But considering Pittsburgh’s system, their lack of overall talent and Cam’s role as the third scoring option, those numbers showed Cam’s potential to be an instant impact player. He was always more than JUST a shooter, but it’s understandable if fans are surprised by this information. It’s not like Pittsburgh is must-watch basketball.

Taking those differences into consideration, Cam was arguably as good, or better, in a few key areas. Some are likely surprised that both payers rebounded at the same rates, and averaged the same amount of assists per game. And despite shooting less frequently, Johnson was more efficient from both the three point and foul lines.

Of course, UNC’s system is also a bit different than Pittsburgh’s. A faster pace provides more opportunities and has rewarded sharpshooters in the past. It also takes time to learn and Coach Williams’ certain philosophies have proven to be obstacles for plenty of experienced former players. How has Cam Johnson performed in ACC play this year, compared to last year? Here are the same stats used above. (Note: ACC games only)

CJ 2017 vs 2018 (Part 1)

Player Games Min Pts ORB DRB TRB Asst ORB% DRB% TRB%
Player Games Min Pts ORB DRB TRB Asst ORB% DRB% TRB%
Cameron Johnson '17 18 35 11.4 0.6 4 4.6 2.2 1.9 13.6 7.8
Cameron Johnson '18 16 30 12.8 1.8 2.9 4.7 2.6 6.4 10.5 8.5

CJ 2017 vs 2018 (Part 2)

Player 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORtg DRtg EFF(+/-)
Player 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORtg DRtg EFF(+/-)
Cameron Johnson '17 1.2 2.6 44.7 2.4 6.1 40.4 1.8 2.2 82.1 116.6 113.1 3.5
Cameron Johnson '18 2.9 5.6 51.1 1.8 5.3 34.5 1.6 1.8 89.3 127.3 112.4 14.9

Johnson has performed better by almost every metric - and that’s after missing the first 11 games with a torn meniscus. By his sixth game back he was starting in UNC’s perimeter-oriented lineup. Not only was he denied the opportunity to integrate against mostly inferior early-season competition, but he was also immediately asked to play 30+ minutes a night against ACC competition. Despite that, he has improved most of his stats while playing 5 fewer minutes per game than last year.

Most encouraging has been his rebounding. Johnson was never a poor rebounder, as last year’s numbers clearly show. However, in the absence of traditional big men, Johnson ties Luke Maye as the tallest starter. It would be understandable if he did not maintain that rate as he battles bigger, stronger men in the paint.

And yet, that has not been a problem. His 4.7 rpg - partially buoyed by two monster double-double games- is actually third on the team. His DRB% is down (understandable due to reasons mentioned above), but his ORB% of 6.4 is more than three times higher than last year. While he’s not consistently grabbing five rebounds a night, he’s exploiting different matchups and maintains a threat to get extend or end a possession.

His +/- efficiency, admittedly a messy metric, has increased over 400%. His two point shooting has improved across all categories, and he’s flirting with 90% at the foul line. The ability to score inside, outside, and at the line cannot be overstated. Cam has developed into a complete, all-around threat who can score at all three levels.

The only frustration, and I use that term loosely, is his 34.5% rate from behind the three-point line. Just typing that seems insane, but considering his success last season this season has been a roller coaster. Truthfully, much of that can be attributed to a four game stretch of ACC games against FSU, Virginia, Boston College, and Notre Dame when he went a 3-16 (18.7%). That is the same time period he entered the starting lineup and UNC was finding their groove. In all other ACC competion Johnson is 26-68 (38.1%).

With the ACC Tournament on the horizon, Cam is arguably playing his best ball of the year. Now healthy and fully integrated into the team, he is a nightly threat to reach double-digits from all over the court. A six point performance against Syracuse snapped a seven-game streak of scoring in double-figures. Including that six-point effort, Johnson is averaging 12.4/5.2/2.4 over the last 5 games. That doesn’t include the effect his shooting ability has on opponents’ defense, as we demonstrated on Friday when showing how UNC destroyed the Syracuse 2-3 zone.

Johnson is clearly a better player this year than last year. While no serious Tar Heel would ever say that Cam has or can “replace” Justin Jackson, it is fair to ask how Johnson’s 2018 numbers measure up to Jackson’s 2017 campaign. Well, here you go.

JJax ‘17 vs CJ ‘18 (Part 1)

Player Games Min Pts ORB DRB TRB Asst ORB% DRB% TRB%
Player Games Min Pts ORB DRB TRB Asst ORB% DRB% TRB%
Justin Jackson '17 18 32.6 18.9 1.7 2.8 4.6 2.3 5.6 10 7.7
Cameron Johnson '18 16 30 12.8 1.8 2.9 4.7 2.6 6.4 10.5 8.5

JJax ‘17 vs CJ ‘18 (Part 2)

Player 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORtg DRtg EFF(+/-)
Player 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORtg DRtg EFF(+/-)
Justin Jackson '17 4.1 8.3 49.7 2.9 7.8 37.1 2.1 2.9 71.2 118.6 109.1 9.5
Cameron Johnson '18 2.9 5.6 51.1 1.8 5.3 34.5 1.6 1.8 89.3 127.3 112.4 14.9

Once again, the differences are noticeable, but minimal. Jackson had a larger scoring role for last year’s Heels, and only had Theo Pinson and Kenny Williams in the backcourt together for a total of six games (and 6 minutes against Virginia Tech). Johnson has had a full supporting cast on the perimeter to share that burden. Yet, despite fewer minutes and fewer attempts, Johnson has been more efficient in almost every facet of the game. Every team and season is different and nobody would argue differently about the 2017 and 2018 Heels, but Johnson has done an incredible job of minimizing the loss of a first round NBA draft pick.

If you were skeptical of what Cam Johnson was going to provide, join the club. UNC needed more than just a long-range sniper to replace five of their top seven players from the 2017 title team. I was hopeful, but not convinced, Johnson would be as well-rounded as he has been. In just 18 total games as a Tar Heel, Johnson has proven to be much more than one-trick pony.

Riding a six game win streak, his evolution has made UNC one of the hottest and most dangerous teams in the country.