While two of UNC’s 2019 NBA Draft first-round hopefuls were five-star recruits with bright spotlights on them from the minute they stepped on campus, the third, Cam Johnson, had a more unconventional route to where the three find themselves today. Nevertheless, after a stellar senior season that ended in first-team All-ACC honors and the best three-point shooting mark in Power 5 basketball, Johnson, despite being possibly the oldest player in this draft as a redshirt senior, currently stands as a likely, if not certain, first-round pick. Let’s take a look at how he got there and what he’ll bring an NBA team.
A late bloomer in high school, Johnson was ranked as the 224th-best high school senior in the country for the 2014 class, having been fairly small for a wing at 6’2 with not enough ballhandling skills to make him a true combo guard prospect. A major growth spurt between his junior and seniors year brought him up to 6’7, at which point he both had to re-adjust to his body and was too late to really get major recruiting interest by the time he did. He committed to the only school from which he had an offer, Pittsburgh, where his dad played before him. He redshirted a year due to injury, then made a name for himself the next two years as a deadly spot-up shooter for the Panthers: he shot 38% from beyond the arc as a freshman and 41% as a sophomore, with assists on 100% of his first year’s makes and 97% of his second year’s, grabbing 5 rebounds and passing for 2 assists per game in addition. After graduating in three years, Johnson decided to leave Kevin Stallings’ program for Chapel Hill, where he was an immediate producer after coming back from a hip injury. His shooting fell down to just 34%, but he showed that he could do a lot more than shoot given the opportunity. He got to the rim more often, showed off a confident-looking and efficient midrange after rarely using it in Pittsburgh, got to the line slightly more regularly, and was a more active defender than he had been. And in his last year with UNC, after a surgery that he described as allowing him to feel a kind of healthy he’d forgotten he knew existed, he made incremental or better improvements at all of the other things, all while lighting up the entire country to the tune of 46% from beyond the arc at a career-high volume of 5.8 threes attempted per game and getting his name firmly on draft boards.
- Shooting: Obviously, this is what is getting Johnson drafted. I could leave this section just by saying he’s a 40.5% career three-point shooter and 82% free throw shooter who went 96/210 (45.7%) from deep in his final season. I could even add that his midrange shooting is in line with his three-point shooting. That’s probably enough proof that he’s an elite shooter without even watching him play. When you watch, though, he might be even better than the numbers. At 6’8.5’’, Johnson’s a tall enough wing, particularly if you play him at shooting guard, to the point that he doesn’t need a lightning-quick release to get his shot up, even with the speed of NBA defenses. He can simply see the basket and shoot over most guys who try to get a hand up on him. The fact that his release is one of the quickest and cleanest in the country, then, is all the more attractive, turning something that’s a tool against probably 80% of NBA defenders into something that basically can’t be stopped. He knocked down tightly contested shots regularly because of his ability to maximize space combined with his height. Off screens, catch-and-shoot, relocating, and even occasionally pulling up, Johnson’s tight mechanics never suffer from head to toes, and as long as he has space to land, every shot looks like it’s going in. He’s not streaky, either. In only two two-game stretches throughout all 36 games of the 2018-19 season did he shoot worse than 35% from behind the arc in both games, and he scored double figures with reasonable efficiency in all of those games anyways.
- Size: As mentioned earlier, Johnson measured 6’8.5’’ in shoes at the NBA Combine with a 6’10 wingspan to go with it. That’s excellent positional size for a shooting guard, Johnson’s most natural positional fit, and pretty good for a small forward, where he played most of his time at UNC and will probably spend significant time in small-ball lineups at the next level. Again, like I said earlier, his size helps him greatly by decreasing the amount of space he needs to be open as a shooter, but it’s also a valuable tool to him as a rebounder, where he can just get to balls before a lot of guards can despite not having phenomenal skill in the area, and as a passer, helping him see the entire floor and make the right play. It serves him well as a help defender as well; he finally started using those long arms to swipe at ballhandlers one pass away from him in his senior season and showed good timing, a proclivity to not get called for fouls, and managed to parlay that into a career-best 1.2 steals per game to go with his first defensive rating below 100.
- Maturity/IQ: If there’s an advantage to being an elder statesman in this draft the way that Johnson is, it’s that he never once during his time at UNC looked lost on the floor. He simply understands the game after having been in the best conference in college basketball for 5 years. He’s not a flashy player outside of his shooting, but he limits his turnovers (just 54 all year), knows how to move without the ball both to set screens and get his own shot, knows both when to take over and when to defer and has no problem doing either (even at times last season deferring to a freshman point guard as a fifth-year All-ACC senior), and is by all accounts an incredible teammate who fit seamlessly into the culture and atmosphere of the Tar Heel squad despite joining it as a graduate transfer without many, if any, prior relationships on the team, and the same can be said about his adjustment on the court to a vastly different system, speaking to his basketball IQ. He was a brilliant student, earning Academic All-ACC Honors twice over his career and graduating from Pittsburgh in 3 years with a 3.9 GPA in Communications. Every bit of available information on Johnson says that he’s a hard worker, extremely smart, and scheme-versatile, and this will help him be a Day 1 contributor in the NBA.
- Miscellany: Johnson isn’t known as an athlete, but he put up very respectable vertical jump numbers and an outstanding lane agility time at the Combine, suggesting that he can at least match up athletically with his soon-to-be peers in the NBA... Plays with sound positioning and active hands on defense, though this is a fairly recent development and he’ll need to keep working on making those things second nature... Averaged less than 2.5 fouls per game his two seasons at UNC even while improving on the defensive end... Was 56% from inside the arc his last season at UNC through a combination of open midrange shots and a newly unearthed ability to use his length to drive past defenses.
- Athleticism/Physicality: While Johnson’s athletic numbers are fine, even good, in the open court, he doesn’t always play like that caliber of athlete. Most of his at-the-rim offense is below the rim or via short jumpers and floaters. He doesn’t get blocked very often because of his height, but unless he has a wide open lane, he doesn’t show a ton of explosion to the basket. He will go up and dunk it if he has space, don’t get me wrong, but most of the time in a halfcourt offense, he’s not going to be putting anybody on a poster. This kind of goes with the second half of that point: Johnson definitely prefers to play ball with minimal contact. He doesn’t finish through guys’ bodies, though he’s okay drawing fouls thanks to his earned confidence from the charity stripe. He doesn’t post up very often, even on smaller defenders. He exploits size mismatches by shooting over them, not getting to the basket. It worked in college, but with better athletes, more switchable defenders, and more disciplined help defense, it’ll be useful for Johnson to have more ways to beat guys inside one-on-one. On defense, Johnson can get in a stance, slide, and swipe without fouling, but he doesn’t body his man, offers fairly little resistance to a bigger player backing him down, and can’t often get into position to contest shots. Despite his size and length, Johnson blocked just 10 shots all year.
- Defensive Versatility: Because of the above, Johnson, despite his size, drive, and technical competence on the defensive end, Johnson is no more than a two-position defender (2 and 3) in the NBA, and I’m not even sure he’s completely that, because a fair number of NBA small forwards will be able to post him up if he doesn’t get more physical on that end of the court. He might be able to check some point guards on guard/guard pick-and-roll switches thanks to his lateral agility, but I’m not sure he has the foot speed to consistently keep up with the NBA’s point guards, either. Johnson has the size profile of somebody who can defend from 2-4, but he’s going to need to bulk up and play with more resistance in order to make that profile a reality. He will be a plus defender against most NBA 2’s, though. He hits the sweet spot between size, speed, and agility for that particular role.
- Playmaking: Johnson is a mature player who consistently makes the right play, which led him to averaging 2.3 assists per game over his last three seasons of college basketball. What he isn’t is a creator; he isn’t a guy who sees passing lanes where others don’t or creates open looks by slicing open a defense. He can play within an offense and take whatever a defense is giving him, but shouldn’t be looked to for much of anything outside of structure. He doesn’t create a ton of shots for himself, either; he doesn’t have the handles to create lots of space off the bounce (though he doesn’t need a ton of space to shoot) and doesn’t present enough of a slashing threat to attack semi-decent or better closeouts. As a wing whose primary role will be shooting, this won’t be a huge hindrance for him, but it is probably the main thing that will keep him from the upper tiers of the NBA.
- Miscellany: A fairly lengthy list of prior injuries is something to watch out for, including structural problems with his shoulder in high school that had him sit out his first season at Pittsburgh, a knee surgery immediately after the 2018 season ended, and the hip scope before his 2019 season. He seems to be over all of those problems now and was only ailed by the flu in his final game, but it’s worth a mention... Doesn’t like finishing with his left hand, though slashing overall isn’t going to be his role in the NBA... Played with a t-shirt under his jersey (I kid, I kid.).