North Carolina forward Brice Johnson was one of the faces of college basketball this season. From dominant 30-point, 20-rebound outings to making first team All-America to leading North Carolina to the national championship game, Johnson was not only possibly the most improved player in college basketball this season, but he simply might have been the best big man in the sport.
The 6-foot-9 forward from South Carolina had one of the better seasons a big man has ever produced in Chapel Hill, averaging a 17-point, 10.4-rebound double-double. Almost as important as that though, he became a well-rounded player who throughout the season became a better, more willing defender as the Tar Heels made their stretch run toward that thwarted national championship.
However, as we’ve seen plenty of times in the past, college success doesn’t necessarily always translate to the NBA. How does Johnson’s game look when it comes to moving on to the next level? Let’s take a look.
Simply put, Johnson is a freak athletically whose leaping ability will translate at the NBA level. Johnson was a state champion high jumper in high school, and it’s clear that training has rubbed off on his hoops game.
That’s a 6-foot-9 dude taking off from outside of the circle and getting so high above the rim that he can literally just throw the ball through the hoop. That’s not uncommon for Johnson. His dunks just look different than other players’ due to the energetic way he finishes with authority as well as his tremendous explosiveness vertically. It’s a small thing, but it shows what you’re dealing with here in terms of his leaping ability. Johnson plays hard, attacks the ball, and utilizes his athletic gifts well.
For such a powerfully explosive athlete though, there’s another part worth pointing out. Johnson possesses superb body control and hang-time. He can provide strength if he needs to, but can also gracefully maneuver himself in the air in order to gain an advantage on his opponent. He’s also a quick jumper, who doesn’t take much time in the way of gathering, meaning he also has a quick second jump. He moves well in transition and over larger distances due to long strides, and he’ll be a weapon in the open floor.
In terms of his game, the biggest thing Johnson brought to the table in college was his voracious rebounding. Johnson was the top defensive rebounder in the ACC this season, grabbing 28.5 percent of available defensive boards himself while on the floor. He does this by combining that explosiveness vertically with terrific instincts for how the ball is going to come off of the rim and meeting it at its highest point. It’s also worth noting that despite questions about his body, Johnson does a good job of establishing position for himself with his lower body strength, both when finding a route to rebound offensively and in the post. Rebounding does tend to translate well to the NBA, meaning this should absolutely be considered a strength even if there are caveats I’ll mention in the next section.
Beyond rebounding, Johnson has great touch around the basket. Simply, Johnson is one of the best finishers in college basketball once he gets the ball near the hoop even if he doesn’t do much to create his own looks. He put up a 64.8 true-shooting percentage this season, good for the top 25 among all players in college basketball, while also being a high volume player who took the fifth-most 2-point field goal attempts in the country and the ninth-most free throws in the ACC.
Plenty of those made baskets came via the dunking variety, but he also showed off a relatively solid right-handed hook shot from out to 10 feet, and occasonally showed off the ability to hit a midrange jumper. That mid-range jumper is going to be extremely important to his NBA hopes, as we’ll discuss in the next section. He converted his 15 catch-and-shoot midrange attempts this season at a very solid 47 percent and hit 78 percent of his free throws, meaning there is definitely room for growth in his game here but it’s a super small sample in terms of his midrange usage during the run of play.
There’s also something to be said for how Johnson seems to have an innate understanding on how to find the soft spot in a defense when moving around the basket. For someone who takes as many shots as Johnson does, it’s rare for him to take a “bad” shot unless it’s a forced shot out of a post-up — something he likely won’t be doing much of in the NBA as he doesn’t really have much in the way to counter act strong defenders inside. He wasn’t placed in a ton of pick-and-roll situations at North Carolina, but his overall mobility and IQ on the offensive end should go over well there in the NBA.
Defensively, Johnson went from being a liability early in his career to at least becoming a net average player by the end of his career. Particularly, his ability to protect the weakside of the rim became a weapon for North Carolina, as he put up a 5.5 block rate on the season. There are some definite concerns in the way this side of the floor will translate in the NBA, but he reacts well when rotating to contest shots near the rim.
Johnson is also known among teammates as a communicative defender inside who points out rotations and can be trusted to be in the right place around the basket.
Let’s start with his measurables. At 6-9 with a 6-11 wingspan, Johnson may have some trouble around the rim against bigger NBA frontlines even despite his superior explosiveness. Particularly, this would come into play on the offensive end, where despite his touch and body control, he could find some struggles to score in the halfcourt unless he adds a midrange game. Johnson has also done some really good work on improving his body and strength, but it probably wouldn’t hurt him to continue to pack that on as he transitions to the NBA as he’s still a bit skinny.
In terms of that midrange game, Johnson only took 36 jump shots on the season per Synergy, or just slightly under one per game. Simply put, Johnson just didn’t need to extend his game out to that level in college. Basically, this means Johnson is going to have to adjust from being a post-up threat and dump-off cutter who was comfortable shooting into a more diverse offensive player who finds space floating out into the 15-foot range and consistently hitting jumpers. With that, he’ll also need to become a bit more comfortable moving the ball along as opposed to looking for his own shot, as occasionally the ball got a bit stuck with him. Some guys can make this adjustment to the midrange, and others struggle with it. Johnson certainly has the tools to do it, but tools don’t always lead to success.
On the rebounding front, Johnson is a plus player but will need to make some improvements at the next level to stay that way. Instead of just relying on his athleticism and ball awareness, he’ll need to learn to do a better job of getting a body on someone, and do a better job of keeping his center of gravity if he gets bumped in the back. Again, Johnson isn’t going to be the biggest guy and often won’t be the most athletic player on the floor in NBA games. He needs to learn to get a bit lower, box out, and learn the technical aspects of hitting the glass.
Speaking of getting low and improving technique, the biggest concern most NBA talent evaluators have regarding Johnson is his ability to defend on the perimeter both in switching situations and in pick-and-rolls. As I’ve written before, Johnson made significant strides defensively throughout his college career — even on the perimeter — but those were mostly just through an increased effort. He’s not the most reactive player when placed in these situations, as seen by the final play of North Carolina’s season, when it took him a bit too long to realize that despite being told to protect the rim, the trailer was his man.
Also, with defending NBA athletes on the perimeter, Johnson is going to need to learn to get into a better defensive stance and slide. His lack of technique in that regard can often make him seem to have slow lateral quickness, which given his athleticism level and frame would be a surprise. The two skills that will likely make or break his career will be his perimeter defense along with his ability to become a better floor spacer as a shooter, meaning there will need to be a lot of work done on his behalf to reach his NBA potential.
That desire to work is going to be another question that NBA teams have for him. While Roy Williams and the North Carolina coaching staff praise the way Johnson has improved his work ethic, it took a relatively significant push on their behalf to get him into that mode. Williams has said that he had to ride Johnson harder than any other player in his illustrious career, and it’s unlikely that Johnson will get that kind of treatment in the NBA. It will be incumbent upon Johnson to convince teams in workouts that not only does he have a desire to improve, but that he has the self-drive and attention to detail to do so.
Overall Stock Report
Johnson is going to be one of the more divisive prospects in terms of popular opinion versus scouts’ opinions in the 2016 NBA Draft. College basketball fans are going to wonder how a dominant, All-American force from a national runner up isn’t a lottery pick, whereas most NBA people have significant questions about the way he’ll fit at the professional level.
Currently, I have Johnson as the No. 26 overall prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft. While I do believe that the questions surrounding Johnson are valid and meaningful, I also think there is a path to success for him if he can cash in on the touch he clearly possesses from the midrange. Anywhere from No. 20 overall to No. 35 seems about right for him. The player type he should be studying includes LaMarcus Aldridge and, more on his level of prospect, Darrell Arthur. Guys who focused more in the paint in college, but learned to play more outside in the NBA to complement that game for the shot creators around them.
If he can round out that portion of his game as well as continue his maturation into an attentive defender, Johnson has a chance to become a really solid rotation option in the NBA with upside of a starting player due to his athleticism. But he’s going to have to really work for it and adjust the things he did well in college.