Improving Johnson fits best off bench

It is evident now that forward Brice Johnson is North Carolina’s best and most consistent scoring option in the post. Johnson has scored double figures in each of the Tar Heels five games to open the season and is third on the team in scoring (14.6 points per game).

Johnson also has surpassed junior forward James Michael McAdoo as the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 7.2 boards per game. Asked if he’d finally figured things out, Johnson said the light switch “has been on.”

“I figured it out after the end of the season last year, I was like, ‘This has to change,’ my level of play has to go up,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he’s playing harder even though he still could be more consistent boxing out on shots, adding “I didn’t box out last year. I still don’t do it now sometimes but I do it every now and then.”

His biggest area of improvement could be on defense. Johnson had 19 blocks all of last season; he’s already leading the Heels with seven this season.

“The transition from high school ... it’s a lot harder to block shots in the college game, so I’ve been learning how to do that a lot better,” Johnson said.

Johnson is fifth on the team in minutes played. The sophomore, who is shooting 65 percent from the field, is still not in the starting lineup.

Nor should he be.

And here are two reasons why:

Sophomore center Joel James, who has started every game so far, is quietly taking small but crucial steps in his development. If he ever reaches his potential, it will be because of the minutes he’s getting now.

Coach Roy Williams ultimately hasn’t played James during any game's deciding minutes. He has mostly gone with Johnson. Williams has used a number of players, including Wade Moody, in the first half of games just to steal minutes. In the case of James he’s getting experience for the future.

James is still so new to basketball he admitted after "Late Night with Roy" that he’s still uncomfortable playing in front of crowds.

If we are to believe what we saw Sunday from center Kennedy Meeks was a sign of things to come and not a one-game aberration, he’ll progress to the point where he becomes the starting center by the end of the regular season.

Aside from the Richmond game, Meeks has improved from the beginning of the season to now. Conditioning has not been a factor for the 6-foot-9 freshman, who is listed at 290 pounds, and considering he just played 24 minutes against a running team like Louisville it’s not likely to be at all.

Meeks’ near triple double against the Cardinals (13 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists) established a new expectation. Meeks believes he can be one of the players who helps make up for the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.

“This game will set the tone for almost the rest of the season,” Meeks said. “Without P.J. and Leslie of course -- that’s two players that could really help us a lot -- but like Coach said, we have to keep moving on and I think we’ll be good for the rest of this year.”