CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Brice Johnson enters his final season at North Carolina with various NBA-quality tangibles, including his length, athleticism and shooting touch. That desirable combination led to an All-ACC season in 2014-15 as the Orangeburg, S.C. native averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Johnson led UNC in field goal percentage (.566) and rebounding and was second in scoring and blocks (42). His talent level was on display at the ACC Tournament in averaging 18.0 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting in helping the Tar Heels reach the championship game.
The known quantities in Johnson’s game are evident; it’s the mental aspect that’s provided inconsistencies throughout his career. In UNC’s preseason trip to the Bahamas in August 2014, Roy Williams played Johnson after suffering a sprained ankle to prove to him that it could be done. The 6-foot-9, 228-pounder has always thrived on emotion, as evidenced by a trend of strong starts leading to dominant performances and slow starts resulting in relative vanishing acts. On three occasions in ACC play last season, he scored 16 or more points in a win only to score four points or less in the following game.
Johnson already has a collection of talent surrounding him, both in the post with Kennedy Meeks and on the perimeter with Marcus Paige, to keep opposing defenses honest in defending him. By tempering his emotions and thereby taking the next critical step in his evolution as a basketball player, Johnson could help UNC take its next step while seeing his draft stock launch up the board next June.
By Eric Montross
I think - to me - that Brice possesses a pretty, soft shot that he can get off anytime he wants. The difference between being successful and being dominant lies within his level of intensity.
Brice has to recognize that he can be terrific. He is mobile, he is long, he has great athleticism. He can jump and elevate and there is no one out there who can really block his shot. Can he make those shots? That's the main question. How much is he willing to exert? Brice can also be a very strong shot blocker. He has shown that tendency during his first three years. He has a tendency to carry his mistakes with him; the natural progression is to deal more effectively with your mistakes and not let them affect you over time.
By Rob Harrington
Johnson has improved progressively during his time in Chapel Hill, and he aims to smooth out the rough edges in his final season on campus. No one questions his scoring ability: He finished second on the team last year with 13 points per contest, shooting 57 percent from the field. He also led the team with eight rebounds per outing. Still, at times his performances met with frustration. To accentuate the positive, he’ll need to become far less prone to fouling and to maintain his cool when adversity inevitably strikes. From a talent and production point of view, Johnson will be critical to a potential Final Four run.
Xs & Os INSIDER
By Tyler Brooks
With his skills and confidence offensively at a personal high, Johnson is primed to do some serious damage as the classic back-to-the-basket scorer in UNC’s interior-focused half-court offense. He does not possess the lower body strength to maintain quality post-up positioning for long periods of time, so he’ll need to focus on beating his man down the floor to secure positional advantages for immediate entries into the post within Carolina’s secondary break. Johnson must improve from a schematic perspective defensively. It’s not a matter of physical aptitude but rather one of mental haziness. If he finally understands and embraces the concept of Roy Williams’s team defense – consistently recognizing where to be and where to move to in relation to ball and man – he has a chance to truly excel in Carolina’s style of play.
By Adrian Atkinson
Johnson led the Tar Heels by converting 74.4% (128-172) of his attempts at the rim last season, including a team-high 54 dunks. For his career, Johnson has finished 75.5% (281-372) of his close attempts—an elite rate (for the sake of comparison, Hansbrough and Zeller were in the low 70s in this metric, with Henson in the high 60s; only Brandan Wright’s off-the-charts 85% has topped Johnson’s number in the Roy Williams era at UNC). Barring injuries, he’s also a safe bet to pass Hansbrough for the most dunks by a Tar Heel in the Williams era (he needs 39 as a senior to pass Psycho T’s career total of 163).
Johnson’s mid-range game is also getting more and more efficient as his career progresses. After making just 33.7% of non-close 2s as a FR, he’s improved that number to 37.9% as a SO and 40.7% as a JR. Another leap as a SR would make him an even more effective go-to post option.
Johnson still needs to make some progress in all defensive areas—helping against the drive, helping/hedging against the high screen, as an individual post defender, containing the dribble against stretch 4s, and avoiding the silly/lazy reach-in fouls that have plagued him at Carolina. In 591 minutes with both Johnson and Meeks on the court, UNC has a defensive efficiency of 94.8. In 275 minutes with only Meeks, it improved to 92.4. In 348 minutes with only Johnson, it plummeted to 108.8.
“Brice, he’s someone I was hoping would go pro. No disrespect to Marcus Paige, but I think he’s the most dangerous player on the team. He has an amazing ability to just jump anywhere from five to 10 feet away from the basket and throw in a little jump hook. He can be so good when he plays with a lot of energy. He’s starting to do a great job of changing the game on the defensive end with deflections and blocked shots.” – ACC Coach
“You have to know where he is at all times. You have to consistently keep a body on him and you can’t let him get over that left shoulder or he’s going to shoot that little baby jump hook pretty quickly. You don’t want him to get any easy baskets or get anything in transition or catch any lobs.” – ACC Coach
“Brice is one of the best scorers in the country. He can score with his back facing the basket. He can shoot. He can score in a hurry and efficiently. I think when he on top of Paige is playing really well you‘re in trouble with those guys. You really need to try and limit one of those two guys and it’s tough to do because he can really score.” – ACC Coach
“You can see that he has been developing his game in certain aspects. His body has improved a lot. He continues to add strength, which was an obvious concern when he got on campus. He’s getting more diverse and he needs to further that significantly.” – NBA Scout
“He’s added a bit of a face up jumper to his game, and can do some more in the post he didn’t have two years ago. He has to continue to become more of a complete player. In the NBA players are dialed into a niche or role and so I don’t think he’ll need to be utilizing faceup ball handling a lot, but perfecting that face up jumper and a more diverse post game will improve his outlook.” – NBA Scout
“The thing about Brice, we’re watching warmups and he’s knocking down jumpers from all over, but then sometimes he’s just not assertive enough in games. I don’t know if it’s about motor or just not being an assertive personality. It’s not loafing or being out of shape, more of a guy that if you’re not handing him the ball, he’s not going to do something big to get it. He’s capable of being a better rim protector and getting rebounds out of his area, but he doesn’t have that assertiveness. To have a big year and move up draft boards, he needs to shake that reputation.” – NBA Scout
“Obviously his athleticism jumps off the page, but with a body like that it’s a hard projection. How will he score and contribute in the NBA unless he becomes a better face up player and a better passer? He’s an okay rebounder and defensively can block shots, but he has to hold a defensive position beyond protecting the rim. All those things need to add up as a package – and he’s not there yet.” – NBA Scout
“What is his role going to be at the next level? Consider that Brandan Wright had size, length, finishing and shotblocking. Brice doesn’t check off all those boxes right now, so there are question marks. Until he improves his offensive skillset away from the basket or gets deeper position in the post with a go-to post move going to the rim, he can put you in no man’s land – there’s a Brandon Ashley element there.” – NBA Scout
(J.B. Cissell, Evan Daniels, Sherrell McMillan, Jack Morton, Ben Sherman contributed to this feature.)