In other years, trying to pick out the best guy to come off the bench for the Tar Heels is a difficult chore. The squad usually goes pretty deep, and in some years the best players on the team don’t even start.
This season, though, from the outset it was pretty clear that the rotation of players was going to be small. Against Loyola, Hubert Davis only played eight people for ten minutes or more, and lest anyone think that was a mistake, it shrank to seven the next game against Brown. Hubert Davis, being a new coach installing a new system and navigating three transfers, pegged pretty early the guys he was going to start and then wanted them to play as much as possible.
Circumstances cut into that depth, too. Anthony Harris would suffer with academic issues which kept him from playing the second half of the year, and Dawson Garcia was struck by injury and illness before circumstances at home forced him to leave the team for good around the start of 2022. Multiple times Carolina would look good with the starters on the floor, but the moment people would start to rotate in, the team would sag greatly.
Then Puff Johnson became healthy enough to play.
The sophomore has been struck by his own bad luck with injuries that put him behind the rest of the team, and as such he didn’t play for the first time until January 15th against Georgia Tech. For the next twelve games, Johnson would see spot duty here and there, mostly in blowouts one way or the other, but he kept trying to take advantage of the minutes he got.
On February 21st against Louisville, Johnson would play a crucial 13 minutes, his first time with double digit minutes in a close game, and while the box score only showed him with two points, it was clear that he showed enough to Hubert Davis that he quickly became the first option off the bench. It was a good thing, too, as the next game in Raleigh saw Leaky Black get injured, and all of a sudden Puff played a season high 29 minutes. He scored 16 points while making two of his four three point attempts, and only trailed Armando Bacot for the lead in scoring, while matching Brady Manek and Caleb Love.
The legend of the Iron Five grew in Durham as all five starters never left the floor in the second half, but part of the reason Davis was able to do this was Puff coming in for five minutes in the first half. He was a lightening bolt of energy, and yet somehow he always would do the job asked of him. By the time the tournament came around, Davis was able to use Puff as his only sub, using him and Leaky Black to help rotate all but RJ Davis onto the bench.
Who was it that sprinted on the court when Armando Bacot first sprained his ankle against Duke? Johnson, who made his mark by calmly nailing his two free throws while Bacot stood at the scorer’s table saying “eff it” about how much pain he was in. The next game against Kansas, he was on his way to playing his second most minutes in a game when the hobbled Bacot ultimately sprained his ankle again, but before that moment embodied the spirit of the team as he played until being punched in the stomach, dry heaving on the court. He would still score eleven points, going 5-9 from the floor, and keeping the Heels in a position to tie at the end.
Johnson knew his role, played it well, and made the most of his minutes when he was called on. The way he was able to quickly catch on despite being behind and becoming the trusted sub bodes well for the rest of his career at UNC, as Davis has shown he will ride the players he trusts. Depending on who stays and comes in next year, it’s likely Johnson won’t be a two-time winner of this award as he’ll move up into the 2023 version of the Iron Five.
For this year, though, Puff is the easy choice for this award. Congrats on being the Sixth Man of the Year!