UNC’s Brice Johnson still working to meet Williams’ demands
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Brice Johnson can chuckle about it now.
North Carolina’s lean 6-foot-10 senior has come out of so many games feeling good about how he snagged rebounds in traffic, ran the floor and showed off that oh-so-soft shooting touch in the paint — only to have coach Roy Williams break down film showing the mistakes that prevented his good game from being great.
“I’m used to tough love,” Johnson said.
Williams has pushed Johnson for more throughout his career, trying to speed up a growth process that has been steady but gradual. Now Johnson enters his final year as a returning all-Atlantic Coast Conference player on a team with Final Four aspirations.
Johnson has had some big moments for the Tar Heels when he has met Williams’ demands, providing the Tar Heels with an athletic big man capable of scoring inside to complement returning senior Marcus Paige outside. The trick is improving his attention to smaller details — a box out here, a screen there — in addition to keeping his intensity high all the time.
“It has been a very steady thing,” Williams said Monday during the team’s preseason media day. “I think you saw him as a freshman and say, ‘Boy he’s even better as a sophomore.’ Then you saw him as a junior and say, ‘Boy he’s better as a junior.’ Then his head coach is saying, ‘I want more.’”
Johnson’s potential as a court-running interior scorer is one of the strengths of this year’s Tar Heels, who return nine of their top 10 scorers from a 26-win team that played for the ACC Tournament title before pushing eventual finalist Wisconsin in the NCAA Sweet 16 loss.
Johnson was second on the team in scoring last year (12.9) and led the team in both rebounding (7.8) and shooting percentage (56.6 percent). He also had seven double-doubles in ACC play last season.
“Around the middle of ACC play where I was on a little hot streak of playing well, I really started to feel like, ‘Hey, this is what I need to do,’” Johnson said. “Coach was saying, ‘This is what I need you to do.’ It was minimal mistakes, but it was the closest to where Coach wanted me to be, I would say, during that time.”
In addition to steadily increasing his primary statistics each year, Johnson has also bulked up from a frail 187 pounds when he arrived in 2012 to 230 now.
“Each individual, their rate of development or rate of improvement varies, and with every kid the motivation part of it is realizing what they can do,” Williams said. “Brice has always wanted to be great. But he just didn’t realize all the work that it took to get there.”
Both Paige and junior frontcourtmate Kennedy Meeks noted changes in Johnson as he has grown into a senior. Meeks said Johnson is “taking everything more seriously” and joking less while being more aggressive and assertive.
Paige described Johnson as having “a better motor.”
“He’s playing harder, he’s diving for loose balls,” Paige said. “And I think he’s finally realized that what’s separating him from being a big-time player at this level and even the next level is just that extra gear. He’s starting to try to dig deep and find that. If he does and when he does, he’s going to be special.”
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