CHAPEL HILL At first Brice Johnson didn’t know what to think – whether he should be disappointed that James Michael McAdoo was leaving North Carolina or whether he should be excited about the opportunity McAdoo’s departure presents.
“I couldn’t tell you how I was feeling at the time,” Johnson, the Tar Heels’ rising junior forward, said Thursday. “I really don’t know. It was a little shocking, because I thought he was going to be one of the ones to come back. But he didn’t.”
There was a hopeful tone in Johnson’s voice, one that suggested he’ll miss playing with McAdoo, who left school after his junior season. Without him, though, Johnson is the most logical choice to enter UNC’s starting lineup at the now-vacant power forward position.
It took a while for that to register with Johnson – for him to understand what was in front of him. But now?
“I’ll be ready for it,” Johnson said. “(I) just have to turn it up a little bit more than what I have been doing. I started playing really well at the end of the season, and then had the injury. So I didn’t get to really keep going.
“I just have to be ready.”
Johnson’s minutes per game nearly doubled last season, and so did his scoring (from 5.4 points per game his freshman season to 10.3 last season) and rebounding (3.2 to 6.1). It was a good sophomore season, overall, but one that left Johnson wanting more.
He suffered an ankle injury early that forced him out of UNC’s 85-83 season-ending loss against Iowa State in the NCAA tournament. Since then, he has thought about what might have been – what should have been, in his mind – had he been able to play.
“It’s very heartbreaking, just knowing that I probably could have been the difference in that game,” Johnson said. “Just either me scoring in the low post, because it probably was going to be a mismatch, or just me blocking that last shot. It’s just very frustrating and disappointing on my part just because – I tried to go back out there.”
Had UNC advanced, Johnson said he would have played the next week against Connecticut – the eventual national champion – at a tournament regional in New York City. As it was, though, Johnson returned home, healed and then re-injured his ankle, which has since healed again.
When Johnson sat down with coach Roy Williams for his annual post-season review, Williams emphasized the same things he did a year earlier: the importance of gaining weight; the need to improve defensively.
Defensively, Johnson said, he has been working on “just everything.” That includes improving his defensive stance and trying to learn how to time shots so he can become a more adept shot-blocker.
He’d like to play this season at 225 pounds, which would be an increase of about 15 pounds from last season. Johnson said he weighs around 217 now, and he said he likes to have some fun with his teammates – namely Kennedy Meeks and Joel James – who are trying to lose weight.
“I do get to taunt them,” Johnson said, laughing. “Like, ‘Hey, you want this? Not-uh, you can’t have it because, I mean, you’re not supposed to be eating that.’ I can eat whatever I want. Don’t tell (strength coach) Jonas (Sahratian) I said that because he might get mad.”
An increased reliance on Johnson could make the Tar Heels more potent offensively. According to kenpom.com, Johnson last season had UNC’s second-highest offensive rating – which measures a player’s offensive efficiency based on a number of factors – behind guard Marcus Paige.
Offense, though, has rarely been an issue for Johnson, who last season shot 56.6 percent. It’s sound defense that has eluded him. He said Thursday he was “almost there” in becoming the defensive player he wants to be, and he’s hopeful that adding a few pounds will help, too.
It would also be beneficial, he said, to primarily play power forward instead of center, as he has been asked to do at times during his first two seasons. Johnson said he considers himself “a natural four” – the number associated with the power forward position.
“I’d be happy if I can play the four more,” Johnson said. “I’m sick of playing people that’s 280 (pounds) and 290 all the time. … Somebody sent me the ESPN article about me and Kennedy fighting for a position. I’m like, ‘Uh, I’m not a five man (center), so I don’t know what to say to this.’”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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