The 2018-19 Tar Heels squad was a team full of stars. Incoming recruits Coby White and Nassir Little were ready to set the world on fire. Kenny Williams was the returning sharpshooter and defensive specialist on the perimeter. Luke Maye was poised to be an All-American and potential conference player of the year.
And then there was Cameron Johnson. Hailing from our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Johnson joined the Pitt Panthers out of high school. Injuries derailed his freshman year and forced him to redshirt (which turned out to be a fantastic positive for the Tar Heels). He averaged less than 12 minutes and scored under 5 points per game in the 2015-2016 season. The following year, as a redshirt sophomore, Johnson played over 33 minutes and scored nearly 12 points per game for the Panthers. He shot 41.5% from beyond the arc.
Graduating in only three years from Pitt, Johnson became the rare transfer with two years of eligibility (due to the redshirt year). Many major sports outlets weighed in on Pitt’s initial refusal to allow Johnson to transfer to UNC. Finally, they relented, and Johnson transferred shortly thereafter (the ridiculous transfer rules should be a Debate subject for another day).
A knee injury disrupted his early season as a graduate junior for the Heels and limited Johnson to only 26 games. Though streaky, his 34% average from three seemed pedestrian but destined to improve. He decided to come back, though, and for his senior year, everything clicked.
In nearly 30 minutes of action per game for the 2018-19 Tar Heels, Johnson averaged just under 17 points, nearly 6 rebounds, and shot nearly 46% from deep. At times, it looked like he could not miss as Johnson established himself as one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. That’s particularly impressive for a 6’9” forward, which made him very difficult to defend. His phenomenal rise as a Tar Heel culminated with a surprisingly high draft selection at 11th overall.
It is undeniable that Cameron Johnson was the best basketball transfer in Carolina history. There is also very little argument that Johnson thrived under Roy Williams in the Carolina system. Going from a good shooting transfer to First Team All-ACC and a lottery pick is very impressive.
Reflecting on Johnson’s development makes you think, though, because he was an atypical case both for UNC and for the college basketball world as a whole. And punctuating that point is the fact that there were two about equally impressive, vastly different (from Johnson and each other) cases of exemplary player development just on Johnson’s team last year. And because it’s what we do here, let’s compare them. The case for Johnson is above, but what about his teammates?
The Debate for the week of July 15: Was Cameron Johnson’s development story the most impressive of the 2018-2019 Tar Heels?
Point B: Coby White was the story of the year.
Although he stands as the leading scorer in North Carolina high school history and was the player of the year in the state in 2018, Coby White was a somewhat under the radar recruit. Perhaps it was because Nassir Little was ranked higher or perhaps it was the senior leadership on the team, but the mid-20’s ranked recruit from Wilson seemed to be set for a freshman year a little out of the spotlight. In fact, there was a fair amount of debate prior to the season as to whether White would even crack the starting lineup, with a point guard on the UNC roster who had been with the program for 2 years.
That debate was quickly put to bed. White started all 35 games that he played. He averaged 16 points, 4 assists, and 3.5 rebounds in just under 29 minutes per game. More than the stats, White was the straw that stirred the Carolina cocktail. He was an engine of energy who ultimately outscored Michael Jordan as a freshman.
What few could have anticipated at the beginning of the year became inevitable by the end of the season as White declared for the NBA draft. He was ultimately selected seventh by the Bulls to cap a fantastic one year stint as a Tar Heel. His development as a freshman point guard under Roy Williams, from the mid-20’s in his class and expected multi-year player to 7th pick as a one-and-done, was extremely impressive.
Point C: Luke Maye
How could any debate about UNC’s player development not include Luke Maye? Coming out of William A. Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, Maye was a successful but not heavily recruited player. In fact, Maye committed to North Carolina as a first-year walk on before a scholarship became available just prior to his freshman year (his legend as an initial walk-on, in other words, is a lie).
As a freshman, Maye barely played more than 5 minutes per game. He was used more as a sophomore, averaging just over 14 minutes and 5.5 points per game. His tournament run in 2017 was legendary, capped by the buzzer beater against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. That game also featured his season high at 17 points, for a player who was largely filling minutes off the bench. Incredibly, he was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player on the way to being a National Champion.
Maye’s junior year was his most productive as he averaged 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and was named first-team All-ACC and a third-team All-American by the AP and Sporting News. His senior year had a slight drop-off, likely attributable to the enormous talent around him. Still, after finishing his senior season with averages of 14.9 points and 10.4 rebounds, he is one of just a few Heels to have had two seasons averaging a double-double. Pretty impressive for someone who was not even sure they would have a scholarship four years earlier.
Time for you to decide! Was Cameron Johnson, as a transfer, the most impressive developmental story of the 2018-19 Heels? Perhaps Coby White’s rapid rise as a freshman should be seen as the best? What about Luke Maye’s four year rise that included a National Championship?
As always, readers are encouraged to join in through the comments and point out what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we never thought of. Also, please feel free to provide suggestions for future topics so we can cover what interests readers and what information is needed to ensure victory when debating slow-witted friends who don’t read the articles! As the sign in my parents’ yard reads, Keep Calm and Go Heels!