In the news conference prior to North Carolina’s game against Michigan State, coach Roy Williams answered a final question before leaving the microphone to make way for forward Brice Johnson.
“He’ll tell you he’s great defensively, be sure to tell him I said he was,” Williams said, before pausing to add, “I don’t think he’ll buy into it.”
Johnson clearly buys into offense.
He’s arguably Carolina’s most reliable post scorer. He has scored double figures in every game except UAB. He’s shooting 62.5 percent from the field, averaging 13.6 points per game and a team-best 7.0 rebounds.
But what has kept Johnson from being an indispensable player who gets 30 minutes a game has been his defense.
“He’s got a long way to go," Williams said. "He can block a shot, but he’s got to get down in his stance and keep working, keep working and keep working. You don’t want to be a player who just helps his team on the offensive end of the floor.”
Johnson is good at a few defensive nuances such as stopping a point guard from advancing the ball in half court while his man (usually the in-bounds thrower) trots up the court. But the Michigan State game also showed some of the little things he’s bad at defensively.
Williams could be heard screaming, “Briiiice!” when Johnson allowed Michigan State’s Kenny Kaminski to grab their first offensive rebound of the second half. Kaminski missed a 3-pointer and instead of boxing out, Johnson began floating down the floor preparing to get out in transition. The problem was the rebound bounced straight back to Kaminski who drove to the basket and drew a foul.
On an in-bounds pass under the basket, Johnson got screened and didn’t communicate with center Kennedy Meeks that Adreian Payne was curling to the lane. Payne scored on a lob pass that Meeks never saw coming until the ball was dunked.
Another play saw Johnson lose track of Kaminski and score on a tip-in of his own miss.
“He still has a long ways to go with getting his intensity up there and maintaining it at a high level,” Williams said. “I think that’s the question mark right there.”
Against Michigan State, Johnson primarily guarded Payne and Branden Dawson. Neither got the best of him on defense. In fact, the Tar Heels outscored Michigan State by 10 points during the career-high 25 minutes Johnson was on the floor.
For Johnson to continue to play those kinds of minutes, he knows that his defensive intensity is key.
“It’s very difficult knowing that you’re trying to do as much as you can, but it just seems like it’s not enough -- to me it seems like enough, but it’s not,” Johnson said. “I’m starting to realize that. I need to do a lot more because what Coach wants is a lot more from what I need to do than I see in myself.”