Before Brice Johnson came to North Carolina as a top-50 prospect in the class of 2012, he was a track and field star at his South Carolina high school. Johnson specialized in jumping, winning two state championships in the high jump and competing in events for the long jump and triple jump. Naturally, Johnson translated those leaping abilities to the basketball court where he also excelled.
Johnson arrived at North Carolina as a lanky 6'9, 187-pound work-in-progress. Since then, he's built onto his frame significantly, maxing out at 232 pounds last season before slimming back to 225 this summer in an effort to regain some speed and agility. The added bulk seems to have affected his explosiveness to an extenthe's no longer quite as fast twitch as he was as a freshman, and struggled to maintain the same terrific per-minute offensive rebounding, block and steal rates he produced as a sophomore, seeing substantial drops in each category.
Now entering his senior season on Tobacco Road, Johnson is going into an extremely important year. The Tar Heels are considered potential Final Four candidates, and Johnson has one last opportunity to impress scouts and show he is worthy of a NBA roster spot.
Johnson possesses a coveted blend of mobility, size, and scoring instincts that simply aren't common in the college game. After he earned the starting forward job at UNC as a junior, and saw his minutes jump from 19 to 24 per game, he quickly became one of the team's most reliable players, maintaining a high efficiency (59% True Shooting Percentage) in spite of the fact that his usage remained the same.
Johnson averaged 19.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per-40 minutes pace adjusted last season, both of which ranked in the top 10 of our database's top 100 prospects. He's a skilled finisher with an impressive knack for being in the right place at the right time. His soft touch can be surprising at times considering he often looks off-balance on his attempts, but he's remained consistently efficient in his college career and clearly has excellent scoring instincts.
Last season, Johnson converted on an excellent 103-of-160 (64.4%) on non-post up attempts around the basket in the half court. He also consistently rebounds his own misses thanks to his ability to leap twice before opponents finish leaping once.
Johnson's explosiveness is also advantageous in transition, where he's extremely mobile and coordinated for a big man. Johnson regularly outran his defenders on the break, resulting in an astoundingly efficient 36-for-39 on field goal attempts (92.3%) in transition last season, per Synergy Sports Technology.
Almost all of Johnson's offense comes inside the paint, as he attempted just a handful of jump shots last season and hasn't shown much potential as a floor spacer, which is fairly common among UNC power forwards. At 6'9, without a great frame, he's undersized on the interior, so it's difficult to see him continuing to see as many touches with his back to the basket as he does for UNC. Johnson's free throw percentage has improved from 57% as a freshman, to 62% as a sophomore to 68% as a junior, which is a promising sign.
Though he shows an adequate form and a high release point on his shots from midrange, he's a reluctant shooter outside of the paint. What makes this reluctance surprising, though, is that he shows fairly nice touch in the handful of jumpers he did attempt, even using the glass nicely at times. It will be interesting to see whether Johnson gets a little bit of a longer leash as a senior, as Carolina possessed little in the way out of outside shooting last year and really struggled with floor-spacing at times.
Part of UNC's reluctance to allow Johnson to operate on the perimeter may stem from what appears to be a fairly average feel for the game. If Johnson wasn't so efficient, he would surely find criticism for being a black hole. He averaged just 1.4 assists per-40 last year, dishing out an assist on just 7.5% of his possessions, one of the lower rates among Top-100 prospects. With the amount of offense that runs through the power forward position at the NBA-level these days, scouts would probably like to see Johnson demonstrate better court vision and passing ability than he's shown up until now, although to his credit, he is far from turnover prone (career 11.5% turnover%).
Johnson was one of the better rebounders in the ACC last season, grabbing 11.8 per-40, one of the better rates among power forwards in our Top-100 rankings. Though he puts up strong numbers on the boards, Johnson actually has significant room to improve as a rebounder. He still shies away from body contact with opponents largely due to his wiry frame and doesn't work particularly hard with box-outs. Johnson is able to use his quickness, length and instincts to pursue loose balls impressive at the college level, but in the NBA he may not be able to solely rely on these terrific tools to make him a plus rebounder.
Defensively, Johnson has something to prove to NBA scouts still as well. He does not possess great instincts here, often biting on pump-fakes and looking a step slow to react to what's happening on the floor, particularly in terms of closing out on the perimeter. His ability to get in a low stance and stay in front of quicker opponents who draw him outside of the paint needs to improve as well, and he has somewhat of a laid back attitude on this end of the floor, not always playing with the highest intensity level.
Johnson's lack of strength is an issue here as well, as it's not rare to see stronger opponents have their way with him due to his very skinny frame, which causes him to get in foul trouble easily. His length, quickness and explosiveness gives him some potential here, though, and he moves extremely well for a player his size, and will have some very impressive possessions at times when he's fully dialed and operating at full intensity.
All in all, Johnson's combination of athleticism and scoring instincts will certainly catch some NBA teams' radars. His skillset is fairly confined, but he manages to stay productive nonetheless. Not many big men move or finish as well as him, and if he can continue to expand his shooting range and show he can hold his own defensively, he could easily convince a team to invest a few years in him to see how much further his frame, feel and skill-level can continue to evolve. Still, with this being his senior season, he will need to show improvement if he wants to advance his chances.