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UNC Basketball: 4-star SF Puff Johnson commits to Tar Heels

UNC has locked up a recognizable name as their fifth basketball recruit for the 2020 class.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Greenville - Texas Southern v North Carolina Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

North Carolina basketball has received another verbal commitment for the class of 2020. On Tuesday, shooting guard Donovan “Puff” Johnson announced that he’ll travel to Chapel Hill for his college career. He is the fifth commit for this recruiting cycle, as the Heels have made an effort to wrap up this class in November. If that name seems familiar, there’s a good reason. He’s Cameron Johnson’s younger brother.

A four-star prospect, Johnson is a 6-7, 185-pound small forward who recently transferred to Hillcrest Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. ESPN ranks him as the #62 prospect heading into his senior season, whereas Rivals rates him as the #48 prospect in the nation and 247 Sports has him just a bit higher at #39. Using their magic formula and pixie dust, the 247 Sports Composite gives Puff an overall ranking as the #48 overall prospect in the nation and the #13 small forward in the country. Those rankings could continue to climb if Johnson continues his summer trajectory. Johnson bounced around outside the top-100 until a strong junior year and summer AAU performance caught the attention of high-major programs.

Check out these two highlight videos from his junior year in Pennsylvania and this past summer on the Nike EYBL circuit.

Most UNC fans will naturally compare Puff to Cam, and there are some similarities in their game. The most noticeable attribute is that both are willing to let it fly from behind the arc. In just 12 games on the Nike EYBL and Peach Jam tournament, Puff put up 91 three-point attempts, connecting on 29. That 31.9% success rate doesn’t look stellar on paper, but a non-shooter isn’t hoisting up 7.6 three-point attempts per game — even in AAU ball.

His junior season stats at Moon High School in Pennsylvania help provide a larger sample size. According to this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Johnson averaged 22.1 ppg on 46% shooting from deep before transferring to Hillcrest Prep this summer. That transfer was necessary due to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League declaring him ineligible for already playing six seasons of basketball after sixth grade. After completing eighth grade at Moon, he repeated that school year at a private school. Thus he would have been entering his seventh season of prep ball within the school system.

However, the younger Johnson is also a different player than his older brother. Already more comfortable in the open court and handling the ball than Cam when he arrived at UNC, Puff is more willing to get to the rim or take his man to the block. While Puff isn’t a burgeoning point guard or shot creator, he won’t struggle to acclimate himself to UNC’s tempo and transition game and should find scoring success at all three levels. He is also likely to find himself down low, exploiting size advantages if he ever plays the power forward in UNC’s evolving small ball philosophy. He told Inside Carolina’s Sherrell McMillan as much, specifically stating that he’s more comfortable down low than his brother.

As with most players in his recruiting range, Puff lacks top-tier athleticism, explosiveness, or consistent above-the-rim capabilities. He’ll need some time in a college strength and conditioning program to get stronger and faster, but he’ll eventually be a match-up nightmare who isn’t afraid to shoot, post-up, crash the glass or defend three positions on the court. After averaging 9.3 rebounds per game as a junior, it’s also fair to expect that Puff won’t shy away from contact and will fully embrace Roy Williams’ rebounding requirements.

Johnson’s arrival should give UNC a vital perimeter piece for the next three or four seasons. With his size, length, and shooting abilities, Johnson could slide into the shooting guard or either forward positions. Much of that depends on how UNC’s future rosters develop. Puff’s addition also gives the coaching staff some flexibility in who they want to target in future recruiting cycles. Projecting a player’s career path is always a fool’s errand but, barring an unexpected development, odds are that Puff’s stay in Chapel Hill will be longer than his brother’s two-year stint.

This commitment scores another surprising win for UNC in this recruiting cycle. After Walker Kessler spurned popular thinking and picked the Heels over Duke and Auburn, Johnson followed his lead. After the Phoenix Suns drafted Cam and Puff transferred to Hillcrest Prep (coached by former Arizona point guard Mike Bibby), the Arizona Wildcats were thought to overwhelming leader. The fact that Gilbert Johnson, Puff and Cam’s father, was teammates with Arizona head coach Sean Miller at Pittsburgh was thought to be enough to seal this recruitment for the folks in Tucson. Alas, Roy Williams used yet another official visit to the close the deal in what has turned into one of Williams’ best recruiting classes since he returned to Chapel Hill.

Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce, Brandon Robinson, and yes, Cole Anthony, are expected to depart North Carolina next spring. If you count the rotating scholarship that Roy Williams gives to walk-ons, which K.J Smith currently owns, then all five known scholarships for next season are now claimed. It is unknown if the coaching staff are actively seeking to fill a sixth spot for next year. As we’ve mentioned before, a sixth or seventh scholarship could available through the NBA draft, transfers, or medical hardships but that may not be known until after the season. Additional known UNC targets Ziaire Williams, Bryce Thompson, and Kerwin Walton are still uncommitted.

Johnson joins Caleb Love, Walker Kessler, Day’Ron Sharpe and R.J. Davis as UNC’s fifth commit for this recruiting cycle. Love (PG), Kessler (C), and Sharpe (C) are all five-star recruits. Davis is a top-70 four-star point guard. Johnson’s addition also means the Heels maintain a consensus top-3 recruiting class.