Last time, I talked about Dontrez Styles and discussed the impact he made for the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament. While what Styles did was impressive, he wasn’t the only bench player who delivered some big minutes. In the national championship versus Kansas, there was only one non-Iron Five member that Hubert Davis trusted to receive extended burn, and that was Puff Johnson.
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Had things turned out differently and UNC won that game, Johnson would’ve been the unsung hero that allowed it to happen. With Leaky Black dealing with foul trouble and the entire team struggling to score the ball in the second half, Johnson tallied 11 points, 6 rebounds, and an assist while hitting five of his nine shots. It wasn’t just his scoring, either. Johnson’s tenacity and willingness to lay his body on the line gave the Heels a much-needed lift and allowed them to remain within striking distance. Who knows what might have happened had he not taken a shot to the stomach with a little over four minutes left?
Johnson had a rough start to his career in Chapel Hill. Battling injuries throughout his entire freshman season (and ensuing offseason), he managed to play only 14 games. This past season, aforementioned injuries kept him from suiting up until January, which was conveniently around the time that Coach Davis started shrinking the lineup. Thus, it was difficult for him to carve out a significant role.
Although he averaged just 3.1 points, Johnson’s ability is apparent, and it wasn’t just the championship game that he showcased it. He put up 11 points in the first round matchup with Marquette and averaged 12 points over two games against NC State. Johnson is not afraid of the moment and has stepped up when his number is called.
Like his brother, Cam, Puff is a sharpshooter. That hasn’t exactly manifested itself yet, mostly due to lack of opportunities. Confidence is another key factor, though. Down the home stretch of this past season, you could see Johnson start to get more comfortable in the offense. Roy Williams always preached for his players to lose themselves in the game, which appears to be the mentality that Johnson has adopted.
I had always expected the shooting from Johnson, but his ability to convert tough buckets in the paint has been something of a surprise. He’s great at using his wiry frame to his advantage, slipping through defenders and finishing at the rim with his length. Johnson’s frame is also what makes him an intriguing defender. His lateral movement is still a work in progress, but his 7’1 wingspan makes him extremely versatile.
With Brady Manek gone, the assumption was that Johnson would take over his starting spot. The addition of Pete Nance makes that much less of a sure thing, but it doesn’t change the fact that Johnson will be an integral part of this team. For the majority of his career, he’s been working to recover from injuries. This offseason, he’s finally had the chance to focus solely on improving his game. Starting or not, I cannot wait to see what Puff Johnson brings this year.