Johnson’s arrival well-timed for reigning champion Tar Heels
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Cameron Johnson tried not to worry about whether he would get his once-blocked release from Pittsburgh to play for reigning national champion North Carolina as a graduate transfer.
That offseason squabble behind him, now Johnson is focused on trying to help the Tar Heels fill a big vacancy on the wing with the loss of Associated Press All-American Justin Jackson to the NBA.
It’s easy to make the comparison, too, considering both have similar frames and the ability to shoot from outside.
“We are different players,” Johnson said Tuesday during the team’s preseason media day. “And we do have a similar build but there are different aspects of our game that we vary with. I guess I can see how some people can project me to fit into that type of role, but it’s a different team this year.
“However coach (Roy Williams) feels he should deploy me is what I’ll do for the team.”
Johnson finds a ready-made opening on a perimeter that returns Final Four Most Outstanding Player Joel Berry II and senior Theo Pinson, along with the return of junior Kenny Williams III from a knee injury that sidelined him for final-month run to UNC’s sixth NCAA championship in Glendale, Arizona.
Jackson, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, averaged 18.3 points and made a program-record 105 3-pointers last year before leaving to become a first-round draft pick.
Johnson is listed as the same size on the roster (6-feet-8, 210 pounds) and averaged 11.9 points while shooting 42 percent from behind the arc last year. And the Tar Heels have seen firsthand what he can do; he scored 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting with six 3s in an 80-78 loss to the Tar Heels in January.
“I feel like when I look at him play during practice, it’s just another Justin basically,” Pinson said. “They both can shoot the crap out of the ball. The only thing is Justin has a way better floater. Cam just has to get (adjusted) into our system and then he’ll be fine.”
Williams isn’t quite ready to jump on the Jackson-Johnson comparisons just yet, noting that Jackson “added and added and added” to his game over three years compared to his limited practices with Johnson so far.
“Last week one day he didn’t miss a shot,” Williams said of Johnson. “I mean, everything he looked at went in, and I said, ‘Well that’s pretty good. That’ll probably help us.’ ... Today is practice No. 12, so we’ll get a chance to keep seeing what he does.
“But I remember him having about 26 on us last year, I remember those.”
There was some concern in May and June whether Johnson would be able to play right away for the Tar Heels after deciding he wanted to transfer. Pitt believed Johnson should sit out a year if he went to another ACC school instead of playing immediately as a graduate transfer with two seasons of eligibility.
NCAA rules allow transfers who have earned their degrees to play immediately. However, schools and conferences can have their own policies for granting a release from a year-to-year scholarship agreement. In this case, Pitt cited an internal policy regarding immediate eligibility for transfers within the conference or to a team on the next year’s schedule.
He issued an open letter in June saying Pitt had interpreted an NCAA rule incorrectly in trying to block his move and that the school was wrong to stand in his way of playing at UNC, which he chose over programs such as Kentucky, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon.
Pitt ultimately relented.
“There’s no hard feelings on my end,” Johnson said. “I understand the competitive nature of college basketball. I just am very thankful Pittsburgh let me go.”
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