HOUSTON — Throughout Brice Johnson’s career at North Carolina, it’s not a secret that he hasn’t always been the best defensive player.
Sure, Johnson’s an All-American now. A well-deserved honor after the season he’s had, too. But for the first three years of his career — and even at times this year — the 6-foot-9 forward has been maligned for his work level on that side of the floor not just by people outside the program, but even by the coaching staff.
“When he came to our place, his work ethic wasn’t the strongest,” coach Roy Williams said Friday at his press conference. “Didn’t really know how to work the hardest. I’ve said, gone on record, I pushed him harder than any player I’ve ever pushed over a four-year period. Strongly criticized him, maybe more than any player I’ve ever coached.”
Well, that push and that criticism has paid off.
Over the last year and especially in March as he’s led North Carolina on its run to the Final Four, Johnson has become an important cog in North Carolina’s defense. And that improvement has coincided with North Carolina’s defense becoming better. Back on Feb. 11, the Tar Heels were sitting at No. 49 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.
Now, the team is No. 22 in that metric heading into the Final Four. And while it can’t all be pinned on Johnson — after all, the team’s overall level has been raised and defense isn’t just a one-way street involving one guy — his improvement on that end has played a major role.
“I think he used to — and I think he would admit to this, I’m not just up here criticizing him — be almost a liability for us his freshman year defensively despite being a great offensive player,” fellow senior Marcus Paige said. “But now, he’s hedging ball-screens better, he’s getting great box outs every time, he’s going up and he has one of the best rebounding rates in the country. He’s a plus defender now, which is pretty impressive for a guy that used to, as he says, stand under the basket in high school and just try to block every shot.”
Yup, that’s exactly how Johnson puts it when you ask him about his defensive improvement over the last four years, and he used this 5-foot-9 writer as an example to explain what his thought process was early in his career.
“Over the last four years, it’s been a process just because in high school I just kinda stood there and blocked a lot of shots because I played against a lot of guys your size,” Johnson said with a chuckle and wry smile. “It was easier for me to just let people go by because I could just block it.”
There certainly are not many players my height playing college hoops. So that meant Johnson needed to adjust to facing off against guys who were actually his size, and oftentimes, bigger than he was given how skinny he was entering college.
“It was kind of an adjustment just because there were a lot of guys who were my size who can jump very well just like I can and have a little bit bigger build than I do and are just as athletic as I am,” Johnson said. “So it’s just a learning process. You’ve just got to get used to playing against guys that are your size.”
The results on the inside have really paid off. Since the calendar turned to March, Johnson is blocking 2.6 shots per game, and he’s contesting more shots near the rim as a weak-side protector in help. He’s also really developed and matured as a rebounder with his defensive rebounding rate exploding from 22.7 percent last year to 28.7 percent this year — the best in the ACC.
Johnson is also renowned by just about every single teammate of his who I talked to for his communication inside. Talking and being communicative is one of the most underappreciated aspects of defense, and Johnson does it really well.
“When you’re playing beside him, it’s a lot different than what people see,” Kennedy Meeks said about his starting partner in the frontcourt. “He’s in the right positions most of the time, and he’s always active and always talking on defense. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve gotten better, just because everyone is talking on defense and getting into the right positions.”
He’s also doing a better job of, as Paige mentioned above, handling ball-screens after really struggling with them even up until the midway point of this season.
“Brice went from not being able to get into a defensive stance to actually getting down,” junior teammate Isaiah Hicks said with a smile and laugh. “I think he physically couldn’t. We always make jokes about that. It’s just time though. He finally matured enough to know that defense is part of the game, too.”
Hicks has always been a pretty solid defender for the Tar Heels, and was named the team’s defender of the game 16 times this season. So he has always known that defense matters. That’s something that Johnson has clearly figured out, and his coaches have noticed, too.
“The number one thing I’ve noticed is his attention to detail and effort,” North Carolina assistant Hubert Davis said. “He’s always been able to score. But to understand that you have to put that kind of effort and attention onto the defensive end is something that Brice has gotten better with every year.”
The improvement of Brice Johnson defensively is just another piece of what has been a pretty terrific college basketball story all season. Like many of the country’s best players, Johnson made a decision to stay and improve his game while in college as opposed to jumping to the NBA. While the decision to go to the NBA works out for many and the players who make the jump deserve no criticism, it’s not always the best path for everyone.
Johnson is living proof of how there are different paths to success for different players.
“You can’t get a finished product right at the beginning,” Davis said. “There’s always growth, and everyone grows at different speeds. Why Coach Williams has pushed him so hard is because he knew there was an All-American in Brice. To see where he’s come from — nobody at the beginning of the year would have picked him to be a first team All-American — is really an inspiration to a lot of people that when you put the work in before and after practice, it really pays off.”
Indeed, Johnson has worked to the point where he can no longer be called a liability defensively. Now on Saturday we get to see if he can take his rounded-out game and lead the Tar Heels to a championship.