No matter what happens tomorrow night at PNC Arena in front of what is certain to be a hostile NC State crowd, Carolina's Brice Johnson has already hit the most pressure-packed free throws of his freshman season.
Those two shots came late in Wednesday's win over Georgia Tech. They didn't determine the outcome of the game, but they did determine Johnson's practice activities for Thursday.
Late in the victory over the Yellow Jackets, Johnson was on the floor with James Manor, Wade Moody, Frank Tanner and Denzel Robinson. After an errant Tech shot, Johnson grabbed the rebound and then, well, then he had a Magic Johnson moment. Instead of finding a guard for an outlet pass, he dribbled upcourt himself, tossing in a behind-the-back dribble at midcourt for good measure. Ignoring Tanner, who may or may not have been open, depending on who you believe (hint: he was wide open), Johnson took the ball to the hoop and was fouled in the act of shooting.
As the players prepared for the free throws, Williams casually suggested to Johnson that he might want to try a pass the next time he's in the same situation, as shown in this photo from UNC hoops photographer extraordinaire J.D. Lyon, Jr. But the head coach was a little more pointed in his comments to the Tar Heels on the bench. The resulting hilarity on the Tar Heel sideline is best captured by this Lyon photo.
Williams's message to the bench: "If Brice doesn't make these free throws, he's going to run a '44' at practice tomorrow."
A 44, for those who don't know, is a fitness-testing run in which players are given 44 seconds to complete four full up-and-back crossings of the court. It might sound easy, but it's not, as you can tell from the priceless expressions on the faces of Reggie Bullock and Joel James when Williams issues the warning. Johnson didn't know exactly what his punishment might be, but he saw the faces of his teammates, and knew it wasn't good.
"I just kept hearing everybody say I was going to run if I didn't make them," Johnson said. "I looked at Coach Williams, and he didn't look at me at all."
So with the weight of his head coach and his gleeful teammates upon him, Johnson stepped to the line.
First shot: swish.
Second shot: swish.
This from a player hitting 53.3% of his free throws on the season.
Perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that Carolina's big man would produce in a clutch moment. Johnson is part of a Tar Heel quartet--including Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Jackson Simmons--that seems to have grown into a role over the past two weeks.
Over the last three games, the foursome has averaged a combined 45 minutes per game, averaging a combined 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. Those are hardly astronomical numbers, but what might be more telling is the production of post teammate James Michael McAdoo over that stretch, as the sophomore is averaging 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from the floor and averaging 7 trips to the free throw line per game.
One of Carolina's biggest problems in the first two ACC games (when McAdoo averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds per game, making just 4.5 trips to the free throw line per game) was enabling McAdoo to find the space to operate efficiently and aggressively in a way that best suited his skill set. Now, with Johnson, James, Simmons and Hubert more comfortable in their roles and their place on the floor, the offense is making progress. For a program built on back-to-the-basket big man scoring, it can sometimes look a little jarring, sometimes with no one in the lane and the occasional face-up dribble drive from McAdoo. But it's also been more productive.
"Something I've really had to learn as the season went on is where the openings for me are going to be," McAdoo said. "I've tried to get better at it, and lately when I've made my cuts to the basket I've tried to either score or hit the open man, whether that's under the basket or spotting up behind the arc."
McAdoo is never going to be confused for a point guard, but he does have four assists in the last three games, including a nice find of Simmons against the Jackets, after failing to get an assist in the first two ACC games.
All the Carolina big men, it seems, have a better idea of their place on the court. Even if it's not putting the ball in the basket, they've found a way to contribute--and seen the positive results of those efforts. The recent emergence of Simmons gives Williams another post option, one who blocks out and is seemingly good for at least one guaranteed hustle rebound per game. Hubert defends (he has a team-high five coaches defensive awards this season). Johnson has more of an offensive knack. James has the big body that challenges Hubert in practice and creates offensive opportunities for his teammates.
"Coach always tells me I need to be the greatest rebounder and the greatest screener," James said. "I want to help my teammates get open for good shots. That's my role right now."
It takes a big man--no pun intended--to accept that kind of role. But not coincidentally, as James grows more comfortable with the coaches' expectations of him, his offensive game has shown similar growth. After occasionally looking lost against Virginia and Miami, he's 4-for-9 from the field in the last three games, and has been more decisive with the ball, making the quick decisions and immediate moves coaches often emphasize to him.
It's safe to assume, though, that you won't see any more behind the back dribbles from any of the Tar Heel big men. They're figuring out what works for them-and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn't.
"We're working on finding our place every day in practice," Johnson said. "We've gotten much more used to where we're supposed to be, and we want to do whatever helps our team win."