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How UNC’s rotation will change when Cameron Johnson returns

North Carolina has adjusted well to Cameron Johnson’s early-season absence, though the Tar Heels were exposed a little bit offensively in their 63-45 loss to Michigan State in the finals of the PK80 Invitational Sunday night.

Aside of the outlying loss to the Spartans, in which little seemed to go well for the Tar Heels, the club has been effective on both ends of the court. UNC ranks in top twenty nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive, adjusted defensive, and adjusted tempo rankings. The Tar Heels have been relying on a versatile rotation, including Luke Maye, Theo Pinson, and Kenny Williams, alongside point guard Joel Berry and UNC’s collection of freshman bigs.

The versatility of the Tar Heel lineup has the potential to increase even more upon Johnson’s return. This is due to his ability to play either the ‘two’ (shooting guard) or along with wing as UNC’s ‘three.’ But with Johnson back, the Tar Heels will have even more firepower.

Johnson started both of UNC’s early exhibitions – the round-robin matchups with UNC-Wilmington, East Carolina, and UNC-Greensboro, as well as Carolina’s warmup game with Barton. He then suffered a neck injury, which sidelined him for UNC’s season opener with Northern Iowa. Johnson then succumbed to the meniscus tear in his left knee on Nov. 13.

 

Kenny Williams seizes opportunity

Johnson’s injuries has created a new opportunity for Kenny Williams to re-assert himself as a fixture in the UNC starting lineup. Ironically, last season it was Williams who went down to a knee injury, creating an opportunity for Theo Pinson to establish a larger role in the UNC rotation.

After scoring in double figures in UNC’s opening two contests, Williams established career highs in points (20) and made 3-pointers (six) in a blowout win at Stanford. He then added 19 points in the victory over Arkansas.

Johnson was ruled out for four to six weeks, putting his return sometime around UNC’s Dec. 17 game with Tennessee, or the Tar Heels’ Dec. 20 home matchup with Wofford. Even if Johnson’s recovery ranges more in the five or six week range, the Tar Heels hope to have him back for Ohio State Dec. 23, or for their ACC opener Dec. 30 against Wake Forest.

Johnson will have no choice but to play his way back into the rotation off the bench when he first returns. Williams has played well enough to stake his claim to the starting shooting guard job for the time being. But with Johnson in the mix, UNC will have more offensive firepower. His ability to consistently score in double figures will make the Tar Heels a much more dangerous opponent.

It will take a few weeks for Johnson to work out the kinks. He struggled from the perimeter in his exhibition appearances, and will need to heat up from the perimeter to maximize his effectiveness. But he’ll be available come winter, when the Tar Heels really need him. If Johnson can stay healthy and his shooting comes around, he’ll be a valuable weapon for the Tar Heels when ACC play arrives.

 

Read more: Evaluating the early-season performances of Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks & Brandon Huffman