CHAPEL HILL — If not for the one arrival, reigning national champion North Carolina might find the upcoming season just as difficult as the seasons following the 2005 and 2009 titles.
Those title teams had to deal with key losses, and that’s exactly what this season’s team is dealing with after losing Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley and Nate Britt off of the 2017 champions.
That key arrival who might make this reign a little more successful is Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson, a graduate student who has two more years of eligibility.
“He’s a young man who’s done a nice job in practice,” Coach Roy Williams said Tuesday at UNC’s basketball media day before leading the 12th practice of the preseason. “Last week, one day he didn’t miss a shot. I mean, everything he looked at went in. I said, ‘well that’s pretty good.’ He’ll probably help us.”
He was a dangerous shooter at Pittsburgh and it showed during Late Night. He scored 13 points and made 2 of 3 3-point attempts in the 20-minute scrimmage after showing that he can sink historic shots. At least re-enactments of them: he made shots when the team was trying to recreate Michael Jordan’s basket in the 1982 NCAA final against Georgetown and Luke Maye’s huge jumper against Kentucky last season.
Johnson should improve the Tar Heels’ 3-point shooting percentage, which was 151st in the country at 35.5% last season. He led the Panthers last season in 3-point field goals (78),
3-point percentage (41.5%, which is better than any Tar Heel with more than four attempts) and free-throw percentage (81.1%, which was better than any UNC player with more than 18 attempts).
It’s widely speculated that Johnson will slide into the wing spot Jackson vacated, and that may be the case. But senior point guard Joel Berry cautioned that they are different players.
“Cam is just more of a shooter,” Berry said. “Justin could take people off the dribble, get his own shot. Had that floater that no one could block. So, Cam can shoot the ball and if we do a great job of getting the ball in the paint and being able to draw in defenders, we know if we kick it out, there’s a high percentage that he’s going to make the shot.”
Williams said it was too early to compare the two players.
“Justin’s game got more well-rounded as he added and added and added.,” Williams said. “I’ve only had 11 practices with Cam so far. But I remember his ability to shoot the ball. That’s my only knowledge I have on him.”
Johnson brings experience and versatility with athleticism to go with impressive length on his 6-8, 210-pound frame. He averaged 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season for Pittsburgh while shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point range and should be able to guard multiple positions and players of many different sizes. He set the Pitt school record by making eight consecutive 3-pointer attempts in mid-November.
A story on CBS Sports’ website called him the No. 1 transfer of the offseason. But it almost didn’t happen. Pittsburgh initially wouldn’t allow him to transfer. Johnson remained resolute that he wanted to become a Tar Heel despite that, and Pitt finally relented.
“There were times that I didn’t know and I just put it in God’s hands and let everything take care of itself,” Johnson said. “I trusted Coach Williams. He said that we could get past this, and he made me feel confident in that decision and, without that confidence, it would have been a lot harder to move forward. I’m really thankful for Coach Williams showing that confidence in me from the beginning.”
He already was familiar with much of Williams’ system because his last coach at Pittsburgh, Kevin Stallings, uses a lot of it, although Williams likes to run more than Stallings.
It was Williams’ way that appealed to Johnson.
“I like the way Coach Williams runs his teams,” he said. “I really respected them when we played against them the past couple of years and the way they get up and down — and the way we get up and down now — and I’m really looking forward to gelling with the guys and getting into a groove this year, and I think the personnel we have should make for a pretty good team.”
Johnson is only the sixth transfer that Williams has welcomed to one of his programs. At Kansas, there was Luke Axtell, Jerod Haase, Rex Walters and Lester Earl. At UNC, he brought in graduate transfer Justin Knox.
Unlike Knox, Johnson has two more years of eligibility. That works out well for Johnson academically since he is part of the two-year sport administration program.
“It’s a really neat program. Actually, there’s 10 of us,” Johnson said. “We take all of the same classes together. We have the same classroom and the professors rotate it out. I’m enjoying it so far. I really like the students in my class and I really like the professors.”
He could have attended several Ivy League schools, and he showed his academic chops by graduating from Pitt in only three school years and making the All-ACC Academic team last season. He still has two years of eligibility because he only played eight games during his freshman season before hurting his shoulder and taking a medical redshirt.
He’s quickly integrated with the team, with his closest friends being roommates Kenny Williams and Luke Maye.
“They are my teammates, so we are together a lot,” Johnson said of Williams and Maye. “Outside of that, I think I’m coming along with the team as a group. We have a lot of new players, so there are a lot of guys trying to find their rhythm and role what’s expected of them. A lot of us are trying to figure it out at the same time.”
He’s gone from the guy who was a veteran in a program and able to tell the younger players what to do to somebody who trying to learn as fast as he can.
“When you go to a new school, you just don’t have that same knowledge anymore,” Johnson said. “But you still carry a little big over. I’m working to get out of a rookie kind of status as quickly as can and just understand how things work around here. It naturally takes a bit of time but I think I’m headed in the right direction.”
He’s slowly becoming more familiar with the UNC campus but is very familiar with the Smith Center, where he scored a season-high 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting while playing all 40 minutes of a 80 –78 loss Jan. 31 to the Tar Heels. But he rarely brings up that game in conversation.
“They mention it to me and bring up the fact that we did not win the game and then bring up the fact that they beat us the next time, too,” Johnson said. “So, I really don’t have that much ground to speak of that game with. I haven’t really said that much about the game.”
The way that game played out could be a winning combination many nights this season for Carolina.
“The game here, I just kind of found some space to shoot and I feel like if I get space to shoot, I’m going to take advantage of it,” Johnson said. “My teammates did a very good job of finding me when I was open that game.”
Although Johnson may not have the same sort of driving ability as Jackson, he says that he’s more than just a shooter and is versatile.
“I feel like, at my size on the wing, I can contribute a lot in the passing lanes and different areas defensively. I want to contribute to rebounding and coach really values rebounding, so that’s something that I’ll continue to improve on,” Johnson said.
Berry says the two most important things for Johnson will be staying healthy and buying in on the defensive end. He led Pitt in steals last season with 31.
“He realizes that, toward the end of the season, that’s where we get better and better,” Berry said. “If he can buy into that and buy into what we do at Carolina, I think he’ll fit in just fine.”
If that happens, the Tar Heels could have a legitimate chance at repeating as national champions.