Monday, January 25, 2016

Brice Johnson

There have been few big men in the country more productive than Brice Johnson, whose made the leap from good to great in his senior season at UNC. With Marcus Paige being very inconsistent and Kennedy Meeks struggling with injuries, Johnson has been the best player on the No. 1 team in the country. He has improved in almost every single statistical category and he is putting up first-team All-American type numbers:

Junior: 12.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.7 blocks on 56.6%
Senior: 16.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks on 63.3%

Johnson came into Chapel Hill as a super-skinny big man and has steadily put weight on his frame over the last four years. He was always faster and more athletic than most of his competition at the NCAA level and now he's stronger than them too. At 6'9 230 with a 6'11 wingspan, he's undersized for the C position at the NBA level and he doesn't have great length for either front-court position, but he has the type of nuclear athleticism that can make up for it.

Johnson is a monster on the glass

Johnson has po-go sticks for legs and he can jump 2 or 3 times before a lot of big man can jump once. The result is a guy whose a terror on the offensive boards. He would be amazing at 21 because he could always tip everyone else back to zero:

He gets a lot of his points from being a garbage man around the rim. He's a relentless rebounder with a nose for the ball, great hands and a soft touch in the lane. He can also elevate over the top of just about anyone, which allows him to score in traffic:

Where he has really improved this season is on the defensive glass, boosting his defensive rebound percentage from 22.7 to 31.1. That's where the extra strength comes into play, as Johnson has an easier time keeping guys on his back and from there he's going to win most jumping contests:

Johnson has improved as a shooter

He's probably never going to be a 3-point shooter, but he is more capable of stepping out and knocking down a mid-range jumper, which is a must for a big man at almost any level of the game these days. Johnson's ability to play out at 15+ feet makes it much easier for UNC to play him with a more traditional 5 like Kennedy Meeks:

He even has the beginnings of a face-up game. If he can force big men to respect his J, he's so fast that he should be able to get around them pretty easily:

Free-thow percentage is one quick and easy way to look the isolated shooting stroke of a big man. That tells you how much time he has put in improving his game and whether he can play some pick-and-pop at the next level. Maybe the most encouraging thing about projecting Johnson to the NBA is how much he has improved in that category in his time at UNC.

Freshman: 57.7% on 0.7 FTA's
Sophomore: 62.2% on 2.4 FTA's
Junior: 67.8% on 3.0 FTA's
Senior: 79.5% on 4.4 FTA's

Johnson is a solid interior defender but his lack of elite size and length is a problem

Johnson averages 1.3 blocks a game, which is pretty good for a guy who plays a lot of PF. He has good timing and good defensive instincts in terms of rotating over and protecting the rim:

He does a good job of being active and using his ability to play above the rim to bother opponents shots. The problem is that his lack of elite length (6'11 wingspan) means he has to get off his feet to be a good interior defender, which leaves him vulnerable to pump fakes and foul trouble:

There were a couple of plays in their 75-70 victory over VA Tech that show why it's difficult to project him as a full-time 5 at the next level. In this sequence, Johnson isn't strong enough to prevent freshman big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. (6'10 240) from powering through him and finishing.

In this one, Blackshear is able to score right over the top of Johnson when he dives to the rim. He's just giving up too much size to bigger players (and he doesn't have the super-sized arms like Draymond Green to make up for it) to be any more than a situational player at the C position in the NBA:

Johnson struggles to guard 1-on-1 on the perimeter

The interesting part of the Virginia Tech game for Johnson was his match-up with Zach LeDay, a 6'7 235 combo forward whom Buzz Williams has slid down to the small-ball 4 position. LeDay is big enough to at least hold his own in the post and he can shoot the 3 and put the ball on the floor, which makes him the perfect test case to see how Johnson could fare against small-ball 4's at the next level. The results were mixed, especially on the defensive end. Johnson is not comfortable closing out around a smaller wing player at the 3-point line and he repeatedly let LeDay (whose been one of the breakout stars of ACC play this season) get right around him:

Johnson didn't really want to get out on LeDay and LeDay was able to punish him for closing out short:

Given the way the league is going, it's hard to imagine Johnson as a full-time starter at the 4 position.  He doesn't have the range to stretch the floor out to the 3-point line and he's not comfortable guarding 3/4 types like Harrison Barnes. He's not a great back-to-the-basket scorer and even if he was trying to win with size at the 4 position has proven to be a losing cause over the last few seasons.

The most intriguing part of Johnson's game is his pick-and-roll D

While he's not great on 1-on-1 defense at either front-court position, Johnson's speed and athleticism makes him an intriguing option when it comes to playing team defense in the NBA, particularly on the pick-and-roll. His steal average (1.3 a game) is really impressive for a big man and it shows that he has quick feet and quick hands, which is exactly what you want when a big is defending in the two-man game. Here he is trapping and forcing a TO:

He's fast enough to play a step off guards and still contest their shot coming off the screen:

He's also capable of sliding his feet and staying in front of smaller guards when they drive the ball at him on the switch:

Brice Johnson could be the next Brandan Wright

Put it all together and Johnson is an intriguing prospect with very defined strengths and weaknesses who will have to be put in the right situation in order to succeed at the next level. He's not big enough to be a starting 5 and he's not perimeter oriented enough to be a starting 4 but he's a great athlete and a great rebounder who can be a good contributor in the pick-and-roll game at both sides of the ball. The role he should have is as a small-ball 5 in a 4-out offense, ala what fellow UNC big man Brandan Wright was doing when playing with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas.

If he's playing in enough space, Johnson can has the speed, the touch and the leaping ability to be a huge problem as a roll man. He can also knock down free throws, which is a huge plus for a big man whose going to catch the ball around the rim a lot. While you didn't see it in these clips, he has crazy dunking ability and he's going to put guys on some Vines when he gets to the NBA.

He has also greatly improved as a passer in his time at the NCAA level. Watch him dissect the Syracuse zone in these clips, a good indication of the improved skill level and feel for the game he has developed under Roy Williams:

On the other side of the ball, the key with Johnson is using him in the right match-ups. You don't want him banging against guys like Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins but he's strong and athletic enough to deal with most backup 5's in the modern NBA.

It's going to be a lot like what happened with Wright. If you put him somewhere where he has to play with another traditional big men in a post-heavy offense where he doesn't get to operate in a lot of space, he's not going to be all that effective. If you let him play in a super uptempo offense like UNC and let him play in space in the half-court, he could be a real problem. DraftExpress currently has him at the No. 42 pick in their most recent mock draft, which seems a little low for him, but it makes sense when you consider that he can only really succeed in one role at the next level - small-ball 5 in a spread pick-and-roll offense.

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