In other words, the graduate transfer from Pittsburgh was expected to pick up where the 2017 ACC Player of the Year left off. And it wouldn't be as easy as it was in theory.
A strained neck left Johnson out of the Tar Heels’ season-opener against Northern Iowa, and a torn meniscus right after kept him tied to the sideline until late December. In his absence, the Tar Heels went 10-1, only falling to then-No. 4 Michigan State.
Johnson was supposed to seamlessly fit into a blooming roster. But everything was called into question when his 10-point, three-rebound debut ended in a 79-75 loss to Wofford — a team that had never beaten a top-25 team in its program history.
“I don’t like to lose,” he said after the game. “This really hurts. And to come back and have this be my first game, it hurts a little bit more.”
The painful beginning wore off, though, and Johnson started to carve out his role. An impressive shooting performance against Ohio State (4-7 for 14 points), and two games of being on the floor during the Tar Heel runs that effectively determined those games, established his worth.
It didn't take long. Five games after his debut, he was inserted into the starting lineup for first-year forward Garrison Brooks.
The move signaled a turning point in North Carolina’s season. The Tar Heels went on a four-game ACC tear after his start against Boston College, and the lineup hasn't changed since. Despite playing the smaller lineup (and shortening the rotation), North Carolina boasts the best rebounding margin in the country.
Now, Johnson has carved out an integral role on this Tar Heel team. He ranks third on the team in points (13.2) and rebounds (4.6) per game. He’s among the team’s most reliable shooters, and even though this is his first year in Chapel Hill, head coach Roy Williams considers him part of the most experienced lineup he can put on the court.
He's proven that he can carry the team at times. At Clemson, Johnson went 10-for-18 for a career-high 32 points. And in UNC's home game versus Duke, Johnson — with help from a historic effort from Kenny Williams — effectively kept North Carolina in the game in the first half.
He may not demand as much attention as the other four players that start alongside him. He may not lead the team in any statistical category. When it comes down to it, he isn’t the player it seemed like North Carolina fans wanted when Justin Jackson declared for the NBA Draft at the end of last season.
Instead, he’s an asset to this less-experienced, streaky Tar Heel team, who quietly fulfills different roles to round out any lineup on the floor.
And, for this team, he's exactly what it needs.
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