Caulton Tudor

At UNC, Johnson will need to get up to speed (literally)

Posted June 9

Cameron Johnson

— It won’t be a seamless adjustment for Cameron Johnson at North Carolina, but there’s no question his arrival from Pitt rates as the most important new addition for last season’s national championship basketball team.

Johnson, a 6-foot-8 graduate transfer, is expected to move into the wing forward position previously manned by junior Justin Jackson, who is leaving a year early to start an NBA career.

And if you go entirely by statistics, there’s a lot of similarity between Johnson and Jackson.

In 33 games for Pitt (16-17, 4-14 ACC), Cameron averaged 33 minutes, scored 11.9 points per game, plus 4.5 rebounds and 77 assists. He shot 81.1 percent on free throws, 44.7 percent from the field and easily led Kevin Stallings’ first Panther team in 3-point percentage at 41.5 (78-188).

At Carolina, Justin led the Tar Heels (33-7, 14-4 ACC) in scoring with an 18.3 average, plus 4.7 rebounds with 113 assists. He shot 74.8 percent at the line, 44.3 from the field and was second to Joel Berry II among primary starters in 3-point accuracy at 37 percent on 3s (105-284). Berry, who will return for his senior season, converted 88 of 230 on 3s for 38.3 percent.

But here’s the stat that best outlines the biggest change Cameron Johnson will have to make: UNC averaged almost 85 points per game while Pitt averaged just over 72 points.

Now there’s not much chance UNC will average 85 points in 2017-18, of course. Having lost Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley, the Heels simply won’t get enough offensive rebounds and stick-backs to maintain that sort of scoring pace.

But that said, there’s even less chance Roy Williams will abandon his career-long strategy of pushing the ball up and down the court. In fact, the Heels likely will depend even more on up-tempo transition offense if they can just stay reasonably close to opponents in defensive rebounding.

At Pitt, Cameron Johnson was the third option in a half-court triangle system that relied entirely on his scoring in concert with Michael Young (18.6 ppg) and Jamel Artis (18.2).

Obviously, the Panthers pushed the pace when it was there for the taking and they did score 80 or more points in a handful of ACC games. But possession for possession, Cameron Johnson is about to make a switch from jogging to sprinting.

Williams’ offensive system isn’t as intricate as UNC was in the days of Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge, but the game itself has changed a great deal since then. The athletes are better, generally bigger and far more accustomed to playing what colloquially is often described as “AAU ball”, which is another way of saying three parts offense, one part defense.

Williams still emphasizes defense, especially traps, as much as Smith. Cameron Johnson will have to deal with that aspect of it, too. But he’ll have to do a lot more running, screening and moving without the ball to get the shots that were automatically his at Pitt.

Stallings was an assistant to Williams for five seasons at Kansas (1988-93). But as a head coach at Illinois State, then Vanderbilt and now Pitt, Stallings just has not had enough top-line personnel to install an offensive system that mirrors what he saw at Kansas. He’s won almost 500 games, but he’s essentially done with half-court sets.

And while Carolina now gets Cameron Johnson, Stallings gets Khameron Davis, a 6-4 guard from Kernersville (NC) Forest Trail High. It’s not an apples and apples move.

Davis averaged 17 points last season and probably would have been a deep reserve for the Panthers in 2017-18 under other circumstances.

But counting Cameron Johnson, Pitt has lost five players in addition to departing seniors Artis, Young, Chris Jones and Sheldon Jeter. And in late season, Stallings dismissed guard Justice Kithcart, who is expected to move on to Old Dominion.

Stallings is left with one reasonably experienced returnee, Ryan Luther (5.7 ppg in 21 games), joined by what will one of the youngest and probably weakest teams in ACC history.

Davis and his fellow newcomers will have to overachieve in order for the Panthers to go 4-14 again in the ACC.

Cameron Johnson, on the other hand, could be Carolina’s second most important player if he catches on quickly. But the very first thing he’ll need to do is find a different jersey number. They’re not likely to toss him No. 23 in Chapel Hill.

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