Photo: Cameron Johnson
CHAPEL HILL – Cameron Johnson is the same guy that averaged 11.9 points a game two seasons ago, but he possesses a different aura about him. He’s no longer just another good ACC player in a Pitt uniform.
At North Carolina, a blue blood basketball program, he's a focal point dressed in Carolina Blue.
Johnson is averaging 16.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists with the ACC stretch run that features two approaching Duke rivalry games. The first showdown matching North Carolina (20-5, 10-2 ACC) and Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 ACC) on ESPN with analyst Dick Vitale riding its coattails is Wednesday at Duke’s Cameron’s Indoor Stadium.
“The pressure is what it is at this level,” Johnson said. “You kind of get used to it at a certain point. You are expected to go out there and perform every day, but I just enjoy it. It's a great experience. It's an experience many people want growing up.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-9, 210-pound senior, warmed up for the first Duke showdown with 27 points on 7-of-10 three-point shooting in a 97-57 rout of Wake Forest Saturday in Winston-Salem. It was a bounce-back performance from turning his ankle with six minutes to play in Monday’s loss at home to Virginia.
On Friday, the second-year Tar Heels player wore a Carolina Blue practice T-shirt to the media room. He had to buy such a T-shirt as a kid. He sat before a panel emblazoned with North Carolina’s argyle logo and sponsor logos designed for cameras to capture. He wasn’t permitted entrée to such a setting until his transfer. There are 17 players on the Tar Heels basketball roster, but there are only a handful selected to represent the program before the media in such a setting.
It’s as special as he imagined while growing up watching ACC basketball.
“Sometimes when things get a little tough all you’ve got to do is think back to when you were a middle schooler or an elementary schooler,” Johnson said. “You think, ‘I wanted to play for Carolina or I wanted to play for Coach (Roy) Williams one day. You are here now. You’ve just got to enjoy it. You’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to embrace the good times and learn from the bad times and keep moving forward.”
Johnson’s dues paid to enjoy the moment included a contentious transfer. He spent the first two years on campus under Jamie Dixon, the coach that had recruited him. But after Dixon left for TCU, he wanted out following one season under Kevin Stallings.
He earned his degree in three years, meaning he had immediate eligibility as a graduate transfer, and he wanted to take his improved game to North Carolina. Pitt tried to block the in-conference transfer, but he was eventually cleared with two years eligibility remaining, thanks to a medical redshirt.
“I don’t regret a thing, honestly,” Johnson said. “It is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I thank the people around me for that and thank the coaching staff for that. I’m really enjoying my time here.”
Pitt under Dixon was a good landing spot for a player that was only a 3-star recruit in the Class of 2014 coming out suburban Pittsburgh at Our Lady of Sacred Heart in Corapolis. Pitt was his father’s alma mater, and the only other offer he had upon committing was from Rice.
His freshman season he injured his shoulder after eight games and missed the rest of the season. He played the next two seasons for the Panthers, averaging 4.8 points in the 2015-16 that turned out to be Dixon’s final season.
Under Stallings, he averaged 11.9 in 2016-17, but the 16-17 record was Pitt’s first losing season in 17 years. His decision to transfer with two years eligibility thanks to a medical redshirt spared him suffering through a 8-24 record. That painful year resulted in Stallings’ dismissal.
In Johnson’s first North Carolina season, he averaged 12.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists. This season he has jumped his stats as well as his leadership role. He’s also grown into being projected as a mid-second-round pick in recent NBA mock drafts.
"I wouldn't necessarily say I had concrete expectations," Johnson said. "I kind of just take it day by day and game by game and try to mark down improvement and where I can improve in this, where I can improve in that. So a lot of the things I have done are things I wanted to improve, so that is encouraging.
“But I still have a lot of room to get better there. So I don't sit back and say 'this is what I wanted to do, this is where I wanted to be.' I kind of just look forward and say this is what I wanted to improve and this is what I want to get better at and then keep pushing forward.”
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