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UNC Basketball: Cameron Johnson and Kevin Knox revisited...again

The Tar Heels ultimately benefitted from what was initially a bleak situation.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly a couple years ago, shortly after the Tar Heels failed to land five-star small forward Kevin Knox, Cameron Johnson entered the market as a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh with two years of eligibility remaining. After initially being told he’d have to sit out a year if he went to a school in the ACC, Pitt eventually abolished that stipulation, and thus Johnson became a Tar Heel.

At the time of his commitment, Jake Lawrence examined whether getting Johnson was actually better than the hypothetical situation in which the Heels won over Knox. Then, around this time last year, Brandon Anderson did another comparison between the two, delving into the players’ numbers and impacts on their respective teams. Well, I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I’d like to take one last look at whether the Tar Heels got the best of this situation. Spoiler alert: they did.

First off, this is in no way a knock on Kevin Knox or his pedigree as a basketball player. Roy Williams poured a lot of time and effort into recruiting the highly-touted wing. It was a pretty major disappointment for Tar Heel fans when Knox chose Kentucky. He went on to have an impressive freshman season for the Wildcats which led to his being selected ninth overall in the 2018 NBA draft. The point here is this: Carolina has and still will get a lot more out of Johnson than they ever would have with Knox.

Johnson’s first season with the Tar Heels didn’t get off to an ideal start. A torn meniscus caused him to miss the entirety of non-conference play. It was later revealed that even once he finally saw the floor, he was dealing with a hip injury that ultimately required surgery during the offseason. Still, Johnson managed to average 12.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 43% from the field and 34% from deep. Comparatively, Knox averaged 15.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, and 1.4 apg while shooting 45% from the field and 34% from three.

The numbers for these guys were obviously very similar, so it’s difficult to determine who made the greatest impact based purely off statistics. As the Wildcats’ leading scorer, Knox was asked to do a little more for his team. Meanwhile, Johnson provided a much-needed veteran scoring presence for the Heels. However, to determine the real difference in the importance of these players, you must skip ahead to this season.

There was never much doubt that Knox would be a one-and-done, regardless of what school he attended. He’s now reaping the benefits of his talents as a starter on the New York Knicks.

Johnson, on the other hand, is currently the Tar Heels’ leading scorer and one of the best shooters in the country. He’s averaging 16.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.2 apg, and he’s shooting 52% from the field and 48% from three.

Johnson is an integral part to a Carolina team that currently sits at #8 in the country with an 18-4 (8-1) record. He’s especially important on the offensive side. During a season in which nearly every one of the Heels’ gifted shooters has struggled at one point or another, Johnson has been the one constant. His 48% three-point shooting ranks second in the ACC.

In addition to his on-court production, Johnson provides big-time leadership. As a fifth-year senior who also played two seasons at Pitt, he has seen just about everything the ACC has to offer. This Carolina team relies heavily on its young talent, but come tournament time, it’ll need guys like Johnson to serve as an anchor of sorts.

Needless to say, the makeup of this team would be much different without the likes of Cameron Johnson. As frustrating as it was when he committed to Kentucky, it’s legitimately scary to think about what would’ve happened if the Tar Heels landed Kevin Knox and never made a play for Cameron Johnson. In hindsight, I’m glad things shook out the way they did.