Brice Johnson's Evolution from Freshman Slacker to Final Four Superstar

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Brice Johnson's Evolution from Freshman Slacker to Final Four Superstar
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Brice Johnson stands in front of his locker in the North Carolina locker room with television cameras pointed his direction, and below the picture, his arms and legs will not stop shaking.

"He appreciates the awards," his father, Herman Johnson, says, "but he doesn't like a lot of attention."

That's hard to believe watching Johnson perform. North Carolina's senior star punctuates every dunk or and-1 with a scream and a flex. His celebrations used to be so elongated, he'd forget to get back on defense and draw the ire of coach Roy Williams—a mistake he's corrected in his older years.

"Now it's Brice dunked it, he's going to scream and he's going to get back," Johnson says.

But the look-at-me celebrations had never really been representative of Johnson's approach on the floor. When he arrived at UNC, he was content with playing only 10.6 minutes per game as a freshman, because James Michael McAdoo was in front of him, and he was the better player.

That would drive some players to improve. But Johnson spent most of his days hanging out in his room and only stepped foot on the court during practice.

"Coming in, Brice was a lazy kid," fellow senior Joel James says. "Honestly, he'll tell you the truth. He didn't do much. He got by on his God-given ability."

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

At some point, that all changed. His role increased, becoming one of the ACC's top bench players as a sophomore and then becoming a starter as a junior. But still, Johnson was known more for his talent than his production. He had ridiculous hops and a smooth jumper for a big man, yet his numbers as a junior (12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds) were reflective of a good player, not a great one.

How did Johnson make the leap as a senior to being the best post player in America and a first-team All-American with video-game stat lines (39 points and 23 rebounds at Florida State) headed to the Final Four?

At North Carolina's senior day, Johnson told the Smith Center crowd of a conversation with assistant coach Hubert Davis late last season.

"You reminded me of why I play basketball," Johnson said. "You told me to play for my mother, and that's what I do every day."


Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Renee Johnson left the world on Oct. 11, 2008, in the middle of the night. (Johnson wears No. 11 in her honor.) Renee had colon cancer, and her husband and son had not known how serious it was until just three or four months before she passed when a doctor informed Herman during a visit that Renee's cancer had reached Stage 4. 

"She didn't want us to feel sorry for her," Herman says.

Renee went about her life like nothing was wrong, and priority No. 1 was taking care of Brice. She took him with her everywhere, and in the summer before she died, when she'd entered Stage 4, she was still following him to all of his games.

"I said, 'You can't go to all these places,'" Herman says.

So on the night she died, it was hard for Brice to comprehend. Near 2 a.m., Herman went to wake Brice up and deliver the news.

"He was like, 'Nah. Nah. Nah.' He didn't believe it," Herman says. "He started bawling. I was like, 'Oh, goodness.' I couldn't take it. I had to walk out."

After the funeral, when it came time for the Johnsons to return to their lives, "he shut down," Herman says. "He just went into his own little world."

Herman tried to keep Brice busy, taking him to the mall and on shopping errands like his mom used to. On the weekends, they would go visit Brice's grandmas.

But the healing process didn't really start to begin, Herman says, until basketball started.

Herman is the varsity coach at Edisto High School in Cordova, South Carolina, where Brice would become his star player. In the spring, Herman coached track and field, and he made Brice run track, even though he'd never had any experience with it. He ended up winning two state titles in the high jump.

"It got to the point where we kept him busy so he didn't have a whole lot of time to think about the situation," Herman says. "We kind of used basketball and him running track, and we were always doing stuff to keep his mind off of what was going on.

"But I knew in the back of his mind, that he was always thinking about his mom."


Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Brice Johnson battles for a rebound during his freshman season when he weighed 187 pounds. Johnson is now listed at 230 pounds.

When Johnson got to North Carolina, he didn't have his dad keeping him busy. 

Once basketball started, it was a rude awakening.

"I'm not going to lie to you. After the first conditioning session, I called my dad, and I was like, 'Hey, I don't know if I can do this,'" Johnson says. "That was the most running I've ever done in my life, and I didn't think I could do it.

"I thought about it. I thought about leaving, because I didn't think I was able to do it."

Johnson wasn't close to being where he needed to be physically. He was a stringbean—listed at 6'9" and 187 pounds as a freshman—and he'd never lifted weights seriously.

"Awful. It was awful," strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian says. "Super weak."

Johnson was decorated as a high school player. He ranked 45th nationally in his class, according to 247Sports, and he was the South Carolina Player of the Year his final two seasons.

But he wasn't the type of recruit North Carolina made a huge priority. He never scored more than 28 points in a game in high school—relevant because Herman held the family record at 29—and Herman didn't even know the Tar Heels were recruiting his son until Williams showed up to a practice a few weeks before he committed.

The star of the class had been Marcus Paige, who ended up playing a big role as a freshman when the starting point guard spot opened up after Kendall Marshall left for the NBA.

After Reggie Bullock departed for the pros following the 2012-13 season and wing P.J. Hairston got in trouble that summer, Paige became the team's star as a sophomore. According to Johnson, Paige is like Williams' son.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

During their sophomore and junior seasons, Paige would take all the big shots late in games. Paige was the one they looked to when something went wrong. 

Johnson has lived with Paige for four years and looks at him like a brother.

"Marcus is the only person I know that can say stuff to Brice and he don't say nothing back to him," Herman says. "That means he trusts him a lot."

Johnson's confidence increased when he started for the first time as a junior, but he was still slow to take on a bigger role. "That was different than coming off the bench, and it took me a while to get my motor going," he says.

North Carolina's coaches preached to him that he was capable of more. Williams is harder on him than any other player on the team, teammates say, because Williams thought Johnson could play with more effort and dominate more than he was.

"From the outside looking in, you see the talent," former Tar Heel and special assistant coach Sean May says. "You see certain glimpses of it in pickup or practice. Man, if you could tap into this, you'd be really special."

Johnson started to realize that late last season, and part of the reason he returned for his senior season instead of going to the NBA was he felt like he had more to accomplish.

"I had a lot of people telling me that I should have, saying that I could have left [for the NBA]," Johnson says. "At the end of the day, I knew I had more to prove, and I just didn't feel like I was ready.

"Even after the Wisconsin game, I didn't really say anything to anybody. Coach was the one that brought it up to me, asking if I was leaving, because he thought I was, but no, I didn't really think about it. I was just worried about trying to get better."

This summer, May started to see a transformation during pickup games in Chapel Hill.

"Before, you'd just throw him the ball, and he would score here or there, but you could see the demonstrative effort to get the ball and demand it," May says. "You'll see it in practice, and you'll see it in games where he'll call for it and we'll run a play and he'll go down and cut off the play, because he knows he can score.

"Those types of things you don't teach. You can't teach that. It's just got to be innate in you, and you're starting to see that come out through the course of the game."

Even Johnson's dominance as a senior took some time to come to fruition.

Early this season, when Paige missed the first six games with a broken bone in his hand, Johnson played well but wasn't putting up star-caliber numbers. Sixteen points was the most he scored during that stretch, and sophomore Justin Jackson was the one who stepped up his scoring.

But in mid-December, following a loss to Texas, Johnson started putting up big numbers. He averaged 22.5 points and 11.0 rebounds during a four-game stretch after the defeat.

The light bulb really turned on, Johnson says, after North Carolina lost at Louisville on Feb. 1, when he a scored 15 points but only took six shots.

"Then it kind of hit me, like wow, I really need to play well, or this team isn't going to do well," Johnson says. "Because I didn't play well that game...I haven't had that pressure on me until now, and I just had to get used to it."

Johnson is now stepping up on the biggest stages. He averaged 23.5 points and 20.0 rebounds in two games against Duke this year. In the NCAA tournament, he's averaged 21.0 points and 9.8 rebounds. He's become the first UNC player ever to put up three straight 20-10 games in the NCAA tournament and set the UNC record for double-doubles (23) in a season.

And he's pleased his coach.

"It's a progression, and everyone doesn't realize that Brice was not a McDonald's All-American out of high school," Williams says. "He's a kid whose worked his tail end off and turned himself into one of the best players in America."


Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The entire Brice Johnson experience was on display Sunday night in the regional final against Notre Dame.

Johnson was dominating the game in the first half with his unguardable turnaround jumper, which he can take over either shoulder. He even threw in a reverse-pivot stepback jumper. He had more rebounds at halftime (eight) than the entire Notre Dame roster.

But nearly seven minutes into the second half after Johnson had been called for a travel and then an over-the-back foul, both of which he disagreed with, he threw the ball up over his head, and when it hit the top of the backboard, official Michael Stephens hit him with a technical foul.

Almost immediately, the Irish took a one-point lead, but Johnson's teammates took care of him by going on a 12-0 run while he got blasted on the bench.

"Sometimes it helps us and sometimes he lets his emotions get the best of him, and this was one time maybe all year as a senior that he kind of allowed it to hurt us, but he bounced back and was terrific in the second half," Paige said. "We live with that because of how fantastic he is and how he lifts us. Sometimes that's a fine line, and he crossed it today. But he's able to keep his head and do what Brice Johnson does when he came back in."

Johnson would eventually return and get back to dominating. He had a final line of 25 points and 12 rebounds, and he was named the regional MVP.

Johnson sought out Williams as his teammates cut down the nets, sneaking up behind the coach during a radio interview. Johnson put his arm around his coach, and once the interview finished, he handed Williams his championship hat. Williams put the bill facing backward, and Johnson turned it sideways and then pushed his coach back toward his teammates laughing.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

The big fella was the center of attention—and finally loving it.

His father watched his son with pride from the front row behind UNC's bench.

"I'm just glad to see he was successful and fulfilling his dreams. It's wonderful," Herman says, trying to fight back the tears. "I know his mom's going to be real, real ecstatic up there."

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.

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