Brice Johnson was a first-team All-American as a senior in 2016 with the Tar Heels. The 6-foot-10 power forward led North Carolina to the 2016 NCAA title game, where UNC lost to Villanova on a buzzer beating 3-pointer. Since being selected No. 25 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2016 NBA Draft, Johnson has been on three different NBA teams.
Earlier this month, the 25-year-old signed a contract with Orlandina Basket, an Italian professional basketball club in the Serie A2 Basket league. On Saturday, The Daily Tar Heel caught up with Johnson at his Teen Cancer America Hoop-a-Thon in Chapel Hill, discussing the highs and lows of his young career and his future overseas.
The Daily Tar Heel: Congrats on signing a contract with Orlandina Basket. Are you excited to play in Italy?
Brice Johnson: I’m just excited to be playing again. I mean, this has been a long couple years for me. Since being waived from Memphis, it’s been an up-and-down road, but I’m just happy to be back on the court and be able to go out there and just play.
DTH: Can you elaborate on what you mean by 'an up-and-down road?'
BJ: From being traded twice, to being cut at the end of the year after one game (with Memphis), basically, and then going through agents, having to change agents in recent months, and then, going to Puerto Rico and that not working out because of the coaching situation there. Now, just sitting around, trying to figure out what I’m gonna do, and then, finally being able to sign a contract and go out there and prove myself again. So, I’m just excited for it.
DTH: Why was your time in Puerto Rico with Indios de Mayagüez of the Baloncesto Superior Nacional basketball league so brief?
BJ: It’s just the coaching thing. It was kinda set up for me to go down there and do well. The owners and everybody liked me, but the coach had other plans. He didn’t want me to play; he wanted to play all the national guys there — there were a couple guys from the national team there. And he had a bunch of favorites on the team, so he wanted to play them more so than me.
DTH: When you look at this upcoming season, in your mind, what are some things you need to do to make your way back to the NBA?
BJ: I think it’s just playing. Nobody’s really seen me play, really since college. I got hurt coming straight out of college, got hurt in the preseason, and then played Summer League, did well, but then, that’s not enough. They need to see me play more than that — that was just five games. I think my talent itself will show once I start playing the game and playing at a consistent rate, doing all the things I know how to do.
DTH: Did the start of your professional basketball career align with the expectations you had when you left UNC?
BJ: Honestly, it didn’t. I mean, it did, in a sense, just because it started very high. I played Summer League, played very well in that down in Orlando. Going to training camp, I wasn’t really expecting to play as much as I wanted to, just because we had an older team and there were a bunch of veteran guys. And then, I got hurt (with a herniated disk in my lower back), and that just derailed everything. Then, I came back at the end of the year. I thought I would be able to play, but I was already behind the curve a little bit and didn’t really play at the end of the year.
Then, the Chris Paul trade happened. All of sudden, after that trade happened, they had a bunch of guys that came in. And obviously, they brought them in there for a reason. At that point, I’m already behind the eight-ball, because I didn’t really do anything the last year. I tried to go to the G-League — I told them to just leave me down there so I could at least play and get better, because I was just gonna sit on the bench anyways.
Then, I ended up getting traded with Blake (Griffin), went to Detroit, kinda sat on the bench with them for however long that was. Then, I got traded again to Memphis. And then, got waived right before the last game.
Then, (I’m) waiting and waiting and waiting and then all of a sudden, I get to Christmas day of last year. And I’m like, 'I can’t do this.' So, I fired my agent and got a new one. The new one found a job in Puerto Rico. I went to Puerto Rico, was playing pretty well, and then, the coach didn’t want me there. The owners were like, 'Why isn’t he playing?' and all this other stuff. They were just like, 'You know what? He’s not gonna change; we can’t change coaches right now.' So, I ended up leaving there.
DTH: What made you come back to the Durham-Chapel Hill area?
BJ: Being here, I get the opportunity to come (on UNC’s campus) 24/7, use the facilities at all times. So, why not be here? I love this area. I was like, 'Hey, I’ll just move back here.' So, I just moved back here, and I’ve been here working out, coming to play pickup with the (UNC) guys here and there when they’re here.
DTH: With you being so close to campus, are you close with the guys on UNC’s team now?
BJ: Yeah, I’m pretty close with them. Everybody calls Garrison (Brooks) my son. Everybody calls him 'Little Brice,' so I’ve taken him under my wing. I talk to him all the time; I give him tips here and there on what he needs to do during the game or to get on Coach’s good side and stuff.
DTH: How has Coach Roy Williams been there for you, especially with you being this close now?
BJ: He’s been great. He’s just been trying to understand what the heck’s going on and trying to help here and there by calling people and saying, 'Hey, he’s available.' But at the end of the day, it’s bigger than basketball with Coach Williams. He’s like a father figure to me outside of my father. I can call him anytime that I want to and talk to him. But at the same time, I want to be my own man and do things on my own sometimes. At the end of the day, I still have him to call for advice and to help me out. So, it’s always good to have him around and in my corner.
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