Did a hip injury cost UNC’s Cameron Johnson the opportunity to test the NBA Draft waters?

When Inside Carolina broke the news on Wednesday after that Cameron Johnson planned to return for his final season at North Carolina, it came as little surprise. Most expected Johnson to be back in Chapel Hill. The lede of that story is Johnson’s return to UNC; however, also mentioned in the story: Johnson underwent a successful arthroscopic hip procedure up in Minnesota earlier this week.

Johnson is expected to make a full recovery before next season, which is great news. However, considering the timing, it’s interesting to speculate: Did that injury, and the necessary recovery time, cost Johnson the opportunity to declare for the NBA Draft, and test out the pre-draft process?


Run it back

Shortly after North Carolina’s 21-point loss to Texas A&M in Charlotte, Cameron Johnson, told the media that he was unsure about his plans for next season. Johnson, the Pitt grad transfer, has one final year of eligibility; however, he could’ve decided to opt for the pros, in theory.

After the game, Roy Williams and Johnson discussed his options — something Roy has done countless times with countless other players.

Four weeks passed, and Johnson made no grand proclamation (until Wednesday, that is): Would he — pardon the sports cliche — test the NBA Draft waters? With the deadline to enter one’s name into the draft on the horizon (April 22), that opportunity had to be a strong consideration for Johnson. Here’s why.


What’s the risk?

Cameron Johnson has good length for a wing, and is a plus-shooter from beyond the arc (38 3P% for his career), but at this point, he’s hardly an NBA prospect. As it pertains to this discussion, though, that isn’t really the point, either.

If Johnson had declared for the draft, without hiring an agent, he would’ve had until June 11 to withdraw his name. The NBA Draft combine gets going a month from now — May 16-20 — up in Chicago, too. In the meantime, he could’ve worked out, built his game, met with teams and received valuable feedback from NBA personnel.

For players who are doing this almost exclusively to gather information, there’s essentially no risk for fringe prospects to venture down this path. Even if the plan was always for Johnson to return for the 2018-19 season, there’s still very opportunity cost here.

NC State’s Torin Dorn threw his name into the draft pool a few weeks back, operating under this notion. The information a player learns in these situations is invaluable; it shows the athlete where he stands as a prospect, and what aspects of his game need work. This is a unique learning experience.


Closer to Home

Two years ago, Justin Jackson went though the same process after his sophomore season at UNC. After getting feedback, Jackson worked like a madman in the summer of 2016; his development was obvious for anyone to see.

Jackson morphed into a catch-and-shoot menace, especially in transition, improved a herky-jerky floater that he could use to attack overaggressive closeouts. After scoring just 0.82 points per possession on spot-ups as a sophomore (34.2 FG%, 41.4 eFG%), per Synergy Sports, Jackson evolved into one of the nation’s top spot-up players.

As a junior, Jackson scored 1.14 points per possession (43.5 FG%, 57.8 eFG%) on spot-ups, according to Synergy — a massive improvement. For his efforts, he was named ACC Player of the Year, and helped the Heels lop off nets in Phoenix.

(If you weren’t paying attention, by the way, Jackson closed his rookie season strongly for the Sacramento Kings: 8.4 points, 47.5 FG% and 32 3P% over the final 22 games.)


Twins: Or something like that

Cameron Johnson and Justin Jackson aren’t the same player, or even the same caliber of prospect. Johnson is already four years out of high school; Jackson entered the draft only three years after he graded out as a 5-star prep recruit. In fact, both players were a part of the same 2014 recruiting class.

But during the 2017-18 season, Johnson found success functioning as a facsimile for Jackson in North Carolina’s top-10 offense.

Johnson — who scored 1.01 points per possession on catch-and-shoots (50.4 eFG%), per Synergy — allowed UNC to play small, space the floor, while also not sacrificing too much on the glass.

Basically, Johnson doesn’t have to look beyond the guy he replaced in North Carolina’s rotation to see why it’s advantageous to go through the pre-draft process, sans agent. For Johnson to eventually carve out a career in the NBA, he needs to focus on turning into a 3-and-D prospect: someone that can defend multiple perimeter positions and hit from deep at a good clip. That’s the meal ticket.

UNC is out its top two playmakers — Pinson and Berry — which could make for fewer catch-and-shoot opportunities next season in Chapel Hill, although I think that’s only a small concern for Johnson.

Now, Johnson’s priority, once he gets healthy, will be to refocus his efforts on the defensive end of the ball. It would have been a boon to work on that craft in the build up to the draft. Unfortunately, that’s no longer an option for Johnson.


No Bad Options

It’s important to remember: Even though Cameron Johnson will not to enter the draft process, he still has a world of possibilities. This is a missed opportunity, due possibly to some unfortunate circumstances. However, Johnson is a really high-level basketball player, and has plenty of reps playing in the ACC; he has a clue for what he needs to work on. Plus, let’s not forget: North Carolina’s coaching staff is top notch; Pinson made huge strides this season as an NBA prospect.

The 6-foot-7 forward has another year improve his stock as an NBA/pro prospect. Regardless of how he spends his summer, Johnson will have to put the work in, like Jackson, to next the proverbial next step.


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