As Brice Johnson looked out the bus window, he could almost feel the stares.
It was early February 2018, and Johnson was en route to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for a game as a member of the Grand Rapids Drive, the G-League affiliate of the Detroit Pistons. The recently traded 6-foot-10 forward was on FaceTime with DeAndre Jordan, his old Los Angeles Clippers teammate.
Johnson looked up from his call to see teammates holding their phones, glaring at him in shock.
Then, he saw the ESPN notification himself. Less than two weeks into his time with the Pistons, he was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies — his third NBA team since being drafted No. 25 overall by the Clippers in 2016.
“I was like, ‘Aye, I’m getting in a groove. Let’s not mess this up,’” he said. “Then they end up doing that. I was like, ‘Dang, alright. Back to square one.’”
Earlier this month, Johnson signed with Orlandina Basket, a club in Serie A2 Basket, an Italian professional basketball league.
Square one. Again.
After a four-year collegiate career as a Tar Heel that concluded with an All-American season and an NCAA title game appearance, this is Johnson's reality.
“There have been times I’ve just wanted to quit,” he said. “I’m gonna be completely honest.”
Johnson purchased a home in Durham after his stint with Memphis, which ended with him being waived at the end of the 2017-18 season. Being close to the UNC basketball team and other familiar faces has helped keep his head up.
So has reconnecting with Nolan Smith, a former All-American guard and 2010 national champion with Duke.
The two became fast friends after meeting in March 2017 — through then-UNC senior guard Nate Britt — at a UNC-Duke game in Chapel Hill. Britt grew up with Smith in Prince George's County in Maryland. Smith was a special assistant for the Blue Devils; Johnson was back in town to support the Tar Heels.
Smith’s professional journey, in ways, parallels Johnson’s. The 2011 first-round selection played for the Portland Trail Blazers for two seasons before the franchise chose not to re-sign him. He spent another two years overseas until a left ACL and meniscus tear derailed his career.
Throughout what’s been a whirlwind career for Johnson so far, Smith has been in his corner, offering advice and guidance.
“When you’re battling for something like your career, your love for the game will be tested,” Smith said. “When you’re wondering, ‘Why am I not on a roster?’ Your love for the game will be tested, and you can go to a dark place. So, just for him to stay positive and keep working hard, his talent will eventually get him to where he wants to get.”
Even with plenty of support, Johnson said he hit his lowest point last Christmas.
At his home, it was just him and his dog. He waited for a call from his agent. It never came.
Johnson thought: Why am I at home? I’m a former first-round pick. Somebody at least wants to have me around on their team.
“I went from being on a team that played on Christmas day to being not anywhere on Christmas day,” he said.
Soon, he fired his agent and hired a new one. His new agent, Jarinn Akana of Dynasty Sports Management, landed him the gig in Italy. Now, he looks to use the opportunity to play his way back into the NBA.
Smith is optimistic that it can happen sooner rather than later.
“His next step is, wherever he’s going, to just go there with an open mind and with the mindset to kill, the same way he did in a Carolina jersey for many years,” Smith said. “Just to go there with that same mindset. And then somebody’s gonna see him.”
During his time as a Tar Heel, Johnson often capped off highlight-reel dunks with fierce displays of emotion.
Johnson's 416 rebounds his senior year broke UNC legend Tyler Hansbrough’s single-season rebounds record. He also set the program record for the most double-doubles in a season with 23 in the same year.
But success didn't come immediately. In his first two seasons at North Carolina, he only started four games.
“I pushed him harder than any player I’ve ever pushed over a four-year period,” head coach Roy Williams said of Johnson to USA Today in 2016.
Johnson will now have to push himself just as hard to get over the learning curve, as he did in college, in the professional ranks.
"I'm ecstatic to go play," he said. "I don't care where it is. I just wanna be back on the court and be able to just prove myself."
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