Brice Johnson slow to heat up as starter

Sophomore forward Brice Johnson scored double figures in seven of North Carolina’s first eight games coming off the bench. He made it look so easy in doing so that surely if coach Roy Williams inserted him into the starting lineup, he’d guarantee quick starts. Right?

Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Johnson was thrown in the starting lineup when center Joel James went down against Texas with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. In starts against Davidson and Northern Kentucky, Johnson has yet to show the flashes of greatness he displayed in a reserve role.

It prompted Williams to declare that he hasn’t made progress.

“Not the last two games,” Williams said. “None. I’m just straightforward. I told him he’s got to get to playing basketball again.”

Williams noted that against NKU, where Johnson had a huge size advantage, he stopped posting up strong after making his first two baskets. He finished with nine points and four rebounds.

That was, however, progress from his first start against Davidson when Johnson fouled out in 18 minutes with just two points and five rebounds.

“[Davidson] game was horrible,” said Johnson, who started two games as a freshman last season. “It was the worse game I’ve ever played. I can say. Ever.”

Johnson hasn’t reached double figures scoring the last four games, but he still averages 11.2 points and leads the team with 6.7 rebounds per game. He said the difference between starting and coming off the bench has been his energy level.

“I was used to coming off the bench and the energy is already up so I just kept it going,” Johnson said. “Now I have to bring it myself from the beginning and just keep it like that.”

One way that could help him is to have another quick start defensively like he had against NKU. Johnson tied his career high with three blocked shots. He leads the team with 18 overall.

It’s the one area that Williams, who has implored Johnson to work defensively, doesn’t have to keep harping on. Johnson noted he was an accomplished shot blocker in high school and wanted to continue that in college.

“I’ve been working on just timing, knowing when to jump when not to jump,” Johnson said. “I just watch the ball sometimes. I know I can jump high enough to go get it.”

Williams said James will likely regain his starting spot when he returns to the lineup as early as Sunday at Wake Forest. That could possibly leave UNC Wilmington as the last time in the immediate future that Johnson starts.

“Brice is another one who’s going to be a really good player,” Williams said. “He’s got to get the mojo going.”