North Carolina

Why UNC basketball’s Cam Johnson is being teased by his new teammates

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, left, and Pitt’s Cameron Johnson, right, chase down a loose ball during Pitt’s 85-67 loss to the Tar Heels.
North Carolina’s Theo Pinson, left, and Pitt’s Cameron Johnson, right, chase down a loose ball during Pitt’s 85-67 loss to the Tar Heels. rwillett@newsobserver.com

One of the North Carolina men’s basketball players’ favorite ways to tease their new teammate, graduate transfer guard Cameron Johnson, is to show highlights from UNC’s 80-78 last-season win over Pitt.

Johnson, who was then playing for the Panthers, scored 24 points in the game, but because the Tar Heels won, his new UNC teammates embrace their bragging rights.

They also like to remind Johnson about the second time the two teams played — when North Carolina again won, this time 85-67.

That’s just one of the ways junior guard Kenny Williams, Johnson’s roommate, likes to mess with him. Besides bringing up last season, Williams calls the 6-8, 210-pound Johnson, “little body.”

“He’s smaller than me,” Williams said with a smile. Williams is 6-4, 185 pounds, but he said he beats Johnson in the “muscle department.”

After living with now-Sacramento Kings rookie Justin Jackson for two years, Williams and junior forward Luke Maye started rooming with Johnson when he transferred to UNC from Pitt this season. The three grew close quickly.

Maye said it was their shared values – both have three brothers – while Williams pointed to Johnson’s funny, down-to-earth demeanor. An ideal companion for watching TV, going out to eat or hanging out as the hours slip by unnoticed.

“He’s the perfect replacement for Justin off the court,” Williams said. “You know, they’re kind of alike.”

But on the court, Johnson is trying to replace Jackson. The two have already drawn comparisons with their lanky frames and prowess on the perimeter.

UNC coach Roy Williams hasn’t seen enough of Johnson to know how he compares to Jackson in play style, but he does know one thing: Johnson can shoot. Last season at Pitt, he averaged 11.9 points per game and made 41.5 percent of his 3-point attempts. But Johnson, whom Maye called an unselfish player, at first hesitated to shoot during UNC’s practices.

“Cam, you’re one of the best shooters on the team,” Williams said to Johnson on the second team practice. “Why are you not shooting the ball?”

That’s not a problem anymore. Whether it be at practice or Late Night With Roy, Johnson has shown off his talent for making shots. During one practice last week, Johnson made every shot he took.

“Everything he looked at went in,” Williams said. “I said, ‘that’s pretty good, he’ll probably help us.’ 

Rebounding is not the reason UNC was drawn to Johnson, but the Tar Heels will need him to build that skill. North Carolina led the nation last season with a 12.3 rebounding margin. Last season’s top three rebounders – starting forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and off-the-bench big man Tony Bradley – are all gone. This season, North Carolina’s rebounding capabilities remain a mystery.

Williams said none of the freshmen forwards are ready to start, so that leaves Maye and Johnson tasked to take over the rebounding effort down low. Johnson averaged 4.5 rebounds for Pitt last season and said he has improved.

Johnson’s experience will expedite his transition into UNC basketball, but so have the bonds he’s already made with Maye, Kenny Williams and the rest of the Tar Heels, despite the “little body” nickname and incessant Pitt-UNC highlight reels.

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