There wasn't much to rave about from Tuesday night's 83-59 loss at Indiana, so it was reasonable to expect that the play of Brice Johnson-10 points in 16 minutes on 5-of-7 shooting from the field-might be one of the highlights of Roy Williams's postgame press conference.
But the Tar Heel head coach had just absorbed a 24-point whipping, so he wasn't exactly in the mood to heap praise on his freshman.
"He was in the right spot at the right time," Williams said of Johnson's production.
Well, that's partly true. One of Johnson's hoops came when he grabbed a loose ball and scored without much Indiana resistance. Then again, he was the one who put himself in position to be near the goal, in scoring range, when the ball was knocked free.
And one of the most encouraging plays of a discouraging game came late in the first half, when the Hoosiers had opened a nine-point lead and the sellout Assembly Hall crowd was roaring. It felt like a tipping point in the game, a time when Carolina needed someone to step forward and take-and make-a big shot. Again, there was Johnson, dropping through a soft baseline jumper, trimming the deficit back to seven and temporarily halting the Indianan onslaught. It wasn't just that he made it, although his shooting stroke has been impressive. It was that he had the courage to take it, on the road, against the nation's top-ranked team.
At 61.7%, the South Carolina native currently leads the Tar Heels in field goal percentage, and he's scoring 0.63 points per minute played, which trails only P.J. Hairston. In the paint, he's looked fluid, and there have been several occasions already this year when he's posted up and then made a quick post move, getting the ball to the rim before his defender can react.
It might surprise you, then, that Johnson says making those decisive moves isn't something that comes naturally.
"That's only something I've learned since I've been at Carolina," he says. "In high school, I never really had to post up. I just got rebounds and put it back. But since I got here, Coach Williams and Coach McGrath have been working with me on making a quick move and not hesitating. I've been working on my post moves before every practice."
He already has a good foundation to build on, because Johnson is the son of a coach-his father, Herman Johnson, was his coach at Edisto High in Cordova, S.C. See that soft touch when the younger Johnson gets the ball to the rim? That's the product of his father's teaching, in skills sessions they've been doing together as long as Brice can remember.
"I used to shoot it too hard," he says. "My dad showed me how to hold it with one hand and shoot it, and told me I had to put a soft touch on it. Since then, I've been doing it the way he showed me."
The son-of-a-coach background-remember, having so many players with hoops backgrounds was often mentioned by Williams as one of his favorite parts of the Hansbrough-Frasor-Green-Ginyard class-means Johnson arrived at Carolina with a head start on basketball IQ. There have been only two areas in which he's struggled since becoming a Tar Heel: snorkeling and defense.
The former happened in Maui, when the entire team went out on a boat to enjoy their Thanksgiving together. There wasn't exactly time to provide an in-depth snorkeling primer, and there aren't many places to snorkel in Cordova, so Johnson struggled with the whole don't-breathe-through-your-nose aspect. He promises he'll be a pro on his next trip (Carolina is slated to play in the Bahamas in November 2014, so he has time to practice).
Defensively, the 187-pound Johnson has been pushed around some in the paint, and he was beaten back in transition on multiple occasions at Indiana. Just as he's having to adapt his offensive game to the new demands of being a Tar Heel post player, he's also trying to make progress defensively.
"The players I'm guarding here are a lot bigger than in high school," he says. "I have to learn how to guard guys who are my size or bigger, and that's not something I've ever had to do before. I can't let myself get pinned down low. I know how to move, and I have to figure out how to use my quickness defensively."