Brice Johnson Not Making the Most of His Starting RolePosted by Lathan Wells on December 28th, 2013
Last week’s big news with respect to North Carolina was the announcement that the school would not seek reinstatement for P.J. Hairston this year. Perhaps flying under the radar in terms of other personnel news was that starting center Joel James would be out for 10 to 14 days after an MCL sprain suffered against Texas. This opened the door for Brice Johnson, who was named the interim starter, to firmly grab hold of the center position. His results in the two games since James’ injury show why head coach Roy Williams has been hesitant to give the sophomore heavy minutes, and also why this team may miss an overlooked member of the starting lineup in James.
Johnson’s first audition in the starting role came against Davidson last Saturday, a game in which the Tar Heels struggled mightily before Marcus Paige rescued them in overtime. Johnson’s stat line was brutal, with only two points on 1-of-3 shooting, a pair of turnovers and an eventual disqualification due to fouls. This Davidson team was scrappy and shot extremely well from outside, but the Wildcats also utilized a shocking ability to get into the paint and either score or dish with little regard for UNC’s big men.
That trend continued on Friday night, when the Tar Heels were outscored in the paint by a Northern Kentucky team whose tallest player is 6’6”. A performance like that boils down to effort and proper defensive positioning, and this is an area with which Johnson continues to struggle. A lean player already, he enjoys most of his success on the defensive end with blocks coming from the weak side. When players actively back him into the basket, he struggles with reaching and committing fouls. While he was able to go 4-of-8 from the field, he was 0-of-2 in the second half and only grabbed four rebounds in 20 minutes of action. James and Kennedy Meeks surely would have contributed better rebounding tallies in similar stints on the floor (in fact, Meeks registered six boards against NKU in only 13 minutes on the floor).
Johnson can score; that’s not debatable. But much of the clamor from fans to see more of him earlier this season had to do with his soft touch around the basket and highlight-reel dunks. The problem is that the slightly-built Johnson is still getting moved around in the paint on both ends of the floor, and his propensity for foul trouble and wearing his emotions on his sleeve don’t often jive with a Williams-coached squad. Many times in both the Davidson and NKU games, Williams was quick to yank Johnson in favor of Meeks after a sole blown assignment or a play where he didn’t think Johnson exerted the desired effort. That’s a remarkably quick hook for one of the few proven scorers on his team, but it further solidifies the head coach’s ethos: You will earn your minutes with defense and rebounding in the frontcourt, not solely with making baskets.
In his postgame interview, Williams was asked what he had seen in Johnson as the season has progressed: “Nothing in the last two games. Nothing at all.” While the head coach went on to later praise Johnson, saying he was still young and would continue to improve, that’s a pretty scathing indictment of Johnson’s audition for both more minutes and entry into the starting five when James returns. James is reportedly questionable for the Tar Heels’ final non-conference game against UNC-Wilmington on New Year’s Eve, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with continuing to rotate big men in and out of the lineup when he returns, but it’s also true that the team would love to see Johnson emerge as a consistent force on both ends because he is the only center on the roster who can score in bunches. Johnson would be wise to make this upcoming contest one of his signature early-season performances and put these last two disappointing auditions in the rear-view mirror.