The biggest adjustment UNC basketball faces next season is replacing James Michael McAdoo at power forward, and Brice Johnson is option No. 1 for solving that problem. The former super-sub did an admirable job of spelling McAdoo as a sophomore, but taking over as the primary frontcourt scorer on a team with Final Four hopes will be a very different challenge.
A healthy fraction of Johnson’s 10.3 points per game last season came in transition situations, where he was one of the Tar Heels’ top finishers. That facet of his game will serve him well on any Roy Williams-coached team, and having classmate Marcus Paige back to lead the fast break will only give Johnson more opportunities to succeed.
Then, too, having Johnson on the floor for longer stretches should also result in a few extra chances to get out and run, as he’s the team’s top interior defender. The fast breaks he starts with a blocked shot or defensive board will be just as valuable as the ones he completes with an exclamation-point jam.
For North Carolina to make a run at the national title, though, Johnson will need to be able to score even when the defense isn’t surrendering dunks on a regular basis. The 6’9” sophomore’s low-post offense hasn’t gotten as much attention as his highlight-reel alley-oops, but he’s definitely shown the potential to become a weapon in the half-court game.
Although he lacks McAdoo’s shooting range, Johnson won’t be much of a downgrade in terms of his back-to-the-basket skills. He’s got a solid jump hook and respectable hands, with his biggest limitation at this stage being lack of bulk (at 210 pounds).
As a more traditional post-up PF, Johnson isn’t as ideal a partner for bulldozer center Kennedy Meeks. Williams’ best solution to getting the most out of that duo may be to play to the matchups on any given night, providing extra low-post touches to whichever big man has the inferior defender (or the hot hand).
In that context, Johnson’s mobility will help him play more effectively from the elbow on those occasions when Meeks is setting up down low. He’s not equipped to bury jump shots on a regular basis at that range, but he can punish defensive mistakes with one or two dribbles into the paint, and he can keep the other side honest with an occasional back-door cut.
Playing from the high post will also give him a chance to crash the boards. He’s a tremendous leaper and a proven offensive rebounder, and if his man goes to help on another Tar Heel, you can bet he’ll be at the rim in short order.
The question of help defense brings up another crucial point in UNC's strategy: The Tar Heels don’t need much more than a token interior game to set up their perimeter players. Paige is an All-America season waiting to happen, and freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson will provide ample scoring from the wings.
Obviously, if Johnson blossoms into a star as a junior, nobody in Carolina blue is about to object, but there’s very little pressure for him to do so. All he needs to be is a competent offensive weapon who can provide a low-post counterweight to the three-point shooting and dribble penetration that should be carrying the Tar Heels attack.
In that environment, Johnson’s versatility and explosiveness should more than compensate for any issues caused by his lack of raw power. Unlike predecessor McAdoo, he won’t have to carry the team himself in order to get his shot at NCAA tournament success.
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