CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Johnson is in the best shape of his life.
You’ve probably heard that offseason story once or twice before, to the point that it’s essentially a bad media stereotype, and while I’m sure that Johnson has spent his fair share of time in the gym this summer, that’s not what I’m referring to.
Johnson had arthroscopic hip surgery following the end of North Carolina’s 2017-18 season to correct an issue that had been bothering him since high school.
Fully healed, Johnson expects to be ready for the start of the 2018-19 season, his fifth and final one as a college basketball player, and he’s looking to go out on top.
“I’m feeling a lot better just on a day-to-day basis not having to worry about that pain,” he said at ACC media day on Wednesday. “It lingered, it affected a lot of different types of movements. Just not having to worry about it is big.”
Johnson said he first realized there was something wrong with his hip way back in his days at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Moon Township.
“I knew something was wrong, probably late high school, when I was aware that maybe something was not right,” Johnson said.
But when Johnson first got started at Pitt, it was a different ailment that held him back. After eight games in his true freshman season, he discovered that he needed shoulder surgery.
“I played eight games that year and then I missed the rest of the season,” he said. “When I got back to play, I thought I was in a good spot, but within a few weeks, it wore down. Then, the attention turned back to the hips.”
Johnson tried to work through it following his redshirt freshman season, but still wasn’t satisfied with the results.
“I got the MRIs, the x-rays, all that stuff and I gradually started to learn what was going on,” he said. “The only way to avoid the bones hitting each other was to get that surgery to done.
Last offseason, he was dealing with the transfer process from Pitt to North Carolina. This season, it was time.
“I think it will go a long way for me,” He said. “Going into a new program last year, adjusting to everything that comes along with that and having to sit out a couple of weeks before getting back and having to jump in really close to conference play was a little bit different.
“So this year I feel like I’m just on a better foot. I feel like I have more knowledge of the system, more knowledge of what Coach [Roy Williams] wants and what the teammates want to do. With my body feeling better, I can step out on the court each day focused on basketball more than kind of the ache or pain of the day, anything like that.
“It’s a burden off my shoulders, a little bit of a burden off my back, and I’m looking forward to getting a heavier portion of non-conference and getting my feet under me towards conference play this year.”
As Johnson alluded to, he also suffered a meniscus tear that required surgery in the final weeks of practice before the 2017-18 season. Now, his shoulder, knee and his hips are finally all working together.
“I’m very happy with where my body is right now,” he said. “I feel like this is the best I’ve felt in forever.”
NOT JUST A SHOOTER
When Johnson first broke through as a redshirt freshman at Pitt, he found a role as a spot-up three-point shooter. As a 6-foot-8 guard, Johnson was the kind of shooter that was open even when he wasn’t really open, because he could shoot right over opposing guards.
His first full season at Pitt, Johnson shot 37.5 percent from 3-point range while playing about 12 minutes per game in a bench role. In his second season, he shot 41.5 percent as a full-time starter.
Last season, he actually had his worst year from beyond the arc, shooting 34.1 percent from long range for the Tar Heels. There was the missed time and the still-recovering knee that likely held him back, but even with the reduced percentage, his scoring was up, from 11.9 points per game to 12.4
“I think early in my career, it was just kind of like a fallback thing. It was what I did. It was what I did well. I wasn’t the strongest guy, wasn’t the fastest guy, and I was new to the game. I found it easy to spot up and hit threes when the ball was passed to me.”
He had his best season shooting from inside the arc (52 percent) and at the free-throw line (84 percent) and he also put up more shots, attempting 10.2 field goals per game, up from 8.6 in his final year with the Panthers.
“I think it’s natural, you get older, you get stronger, you get smarted, you get more used to the pace and physicality of the game and then everything else starts falling in line,” Johnson said.
Johnson will have competition for playing time, with two Top-100 freshmen in Nasir Little and Rechon Black coming in at the wing, but has become one of Williams’ most-trusted options and even inspired the coach to play more four-guard basketball last season than he ever had in the past with his strong play.
If you knew Johnson in high school, it’s pretty unexpected that he’s now entering his senior year at North Carolina and expected to be a key contributor.
Five years ago, entering his senior year of high school, he had offers from Bryant, Columbia, Marist and UMass-Lowell.
“I was a really late bloomer,” Johnson explained. “When I say really late bloomer, I mean like really late. I was 6-foot-2, 160 pounds as a junior in high school. I was recruited as a point guard to a lot of the schools that recruited me initially. I didn’t get my first Division I offer until March of my junior year of high school.”
That senior year at OLSH didn’t go the way he expected it to, either. A second-round loss to North Catholic knocked the Chargers out of the WPIAL playoffs early and prevented them from earning an expected state playoff berth, which Johnson was counting on to showcase his skills.
“All of the schools that were coming to watch me play in the playoffs just kind of went their own way,” Johnson said. “I was broken to pieces. I was like, ‘I don’t know where I go from here.’ My mom came into my room, she put her arm around me and I was crying like, ‘I don’t know what to do right now, mom and I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”
Then, unexpectedly, Jamie Dixon came calling with a scholarship offer to Pitt. Johnson’s path from an under-recruited player to one of the top players on the one of the top teams in the best college basketball league in the country wasn’t easy, but he wouldn’t trade away the way it happened or his time at Pitt.
“A couple weeks later, I’m committed to Pitt and ready to start my journey there,” Johnson said. “Everything that happened, happened for a reason.”
UNDER HIS WING
Cam isn’t the only member of the Johnson household to make college basketball news this year. His younger brother, Donovan Johnson is a Class of 2020 wing playing for Moon.
“My little brother, his recruiting process is starting a little bit earlier than mine did,” Cameron Johnson said. “He’s a junior now. He’s got a pretty good frame and I think he’ll be a pretty major prospect at the end of the day.”
Suffice to say, he’s ahead of where Cameron was at this point in his collegiate recruiting. The younger Johnson has offers to Akron, Duquesne, George Washington and USC Upstate already. Cam is more than OK with him getting more attention.
“If I’m a college coach and I see the development that I had my junior year of high school and that’s my little brother and he’s kind of on a similar path that I am … I think his potential through the roof,” Cameron Johnson said. “I want him to be better than I am. I think he’ll be better than I am. I think he definitely has that in him. Everything that he’s been able to see, I think it helps him in ways that are unbelievable.
“My dream for him is for when people mention my family or anything like that, they think of him first as the better player. They think of my younger brother as better than me. Because I want that for him. I want him to be a great player. I want him to play professionally. I want him to have a great career.”
Cam isn’t allowed to talk specifically about any advice or suggestions he’s made about where Donovan should go to college, but he’s definitely interested in the process, and not just as an older brother.
FOCUS ON THE BIGGER PICTURE
Johnson’s masters program at North Carolina is in sport administration with a focus on college athletics.
As someone that’s played AAU basketball, been recruited, had his coach leave and transferred as a graduate, he’s keenly aware of the big-picture issues that have been swirling around college basketball.
So when it comes down to an idea like $125,000 contracts the NBA’s G-League is offering to high school players, it’s an idea that interested him.
“I’ve been trying to work my way around that myself,” he said. “What I have been pondering the last year is what exactly are we going to do with college sports? It’s an extremely tough question. … College is a great experience. You can be there for one year or five, like I am, and it’s memories that will never be forgotten. It’s relationships that will never be forgotten. It’s a whole school behind you that you can’t get in the G-League. To have the University of Pittsburgh, to have the University of North Carolina behind me, I feel so comfortable in those spheres. It’s like I have a real family.
“The drawback to taking that contract — you’ll have more money that freshman year, for sure — but you won’t have that circle. Money is money, you know what I mean? It’s just material things. Relationships are real and being a part of something is real. That’s something that you want at the end of the day.”
But he also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him recommending for Donovan to take that route if it came to it.
“I think if the opportunity arises for him to go, it’s definitely worth a thought, and I’m going to leave it at that,” he said. “It depends on where he is in his life, how he feels, where I’m at, where my family’s at.”
Johnson’s family still lives in the Pittsburgh area, and despite his decision to transfer from Pitt to North Carolina, it’s still a place that is near and dear to his heart. For the first time since his transfer, he’ll return to the Petersen Events Center this January with the Tar Heels. It’s going to be a strange mix of emotions, but he’s definitely looking forward to it.
“I’m excited to go play back there,” he said. “It’s home. I’ve been playing in that arena since I was a little kid and then to play three seasons in a Panthers uniform, going back there, the fact that I don’t have teammates that I played with on that team and it’s not a coach that I played against definitely makes it a little less weird, but I’m excited to go back there.”
Johnson left the Pitt program after one season of playing under Kevin Stallings, but keeping tabs on things from afar, he’s been impressed by the hire of Jeff Capel.
“I like Coach Capel,” Johnson said. “I think he’ll do a great job there. He has a great staff around him from what I know and there are a couple guys still around from when I was there.”
Johnson still believes that Pitt can get back to being the kind of powerhouse program it was under Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon for most of the last two decades.
“I think Pittsburgh has a lot of potential to have a good program,” he said. “It’s obvious because it’s been done for a very long time. The recent years have maybe turned people’s minds away from the fact that they made the tournament 12 out of 14 years at a certain point and had very successful teams. The Oakland Zoo is a force, the Petersen Events Center is a beautiful arena and the city of Pittsburgh is a great place to be. I think he’ll get things turned in the right direction and I think everything will go pretty well for them.”