Carolina fans no doubt followed the summer of Cameron Johnson. With so much drama surrounding the University of Pittsburgh’s decision to release him to North Carolina, it’s almost impossible to hear Johnson’s name and not immediately think only of that waiting game. Although he came to Chapel Hill in a non-traditional way, Johnson is part of the Tar Heel family now; let’s get to know him.
First of all, Johnson has handled his situation this summer —and the inevitable questions that followed— with nothing but class. It’s natural to believe, if not expect, him to be somewhat bitter after fighting with Pitt over whether or not he could even come to Chapel Hill this fall, but Johnson showed no sign of disdain for his former institution.
In the middle of answering a question about this summer, he stopped to emphasize his gratitude. “That’s something that I don’t want to go unnoticed, is that I really appreciate the University of Pittsburgh for [letting go],” he said.
Both times he was asked about the experience, he made a point to show respect to Pitt. If anything, the only negative sentiment he showed regarding the ordeal was toward the college basketball system as a whole. When he was asked whether he had any hard feelings at all, he paused, shaping his words carefully. “There’s no hard feelings on my end . . . I understand the competitive nature of college basketball and . . . I just am very thankful Pittsburgh let me go.”
The second thing to know about the 6-foot-8-inch, 210-pound guard is that he is not Justin Jackson. “We are different players,” said Johnson, who averaged 11.9 points for Pitt a year ago. “We do have a similar build, but there are different aspects of our game that we vary with.”
While he seems a natural fit into the role Jackson took over last year, it would frankly be unrealistic to expect that level of production out of Johnson, especially in his first year as a Tar Heel. So fans would do well to let Cam be Cam and appreciate what he is able to bring to Carolina.
Johnson himself is a fairly laid back person, but that hasn’t stopped him from bonding with his new team. He said that he’s spent a lot of time with roommates Kenny Williams and Luke Maye, and that because there are plenty of freshmen on the team, he’s found some common ground. “A lot of us are kinda figuring it out at the same time,” he said of his fellow newcomers.
Despite being one of eight new players on the roster this year, Johnson is in a unique situation as a graduate transfer. Coming from a position of experience at Pitt, it’s an adjustment just to find his way to his new classes, to say nothing of his role as a leader on the men’s basketball team. “I’m working to get out of a rookie kind of status as quickly as I can," he said. "I feel like I’m taking steps in the right direction.”
Just as it would be strange for any other Carolina transfer from Pitt to switch school colors and cheer on the Tar Heels, getting comfortable playing for a team that once posed fierce competition was not an instant process for Johnson. “It actually took a little bit [to get comfortable at Carolina]," he said. "Coming here, it just took a second to fully embrace the ‘we’ being Carolina basketball.”
Even though now he is fully embracing the ‘we,’ his new teammates won’t let him forget the last time Johnson played on the floor at the Dean E. Smith Center, when he dropped 24 points for the Panthers in a narrow Carolina victory. “They mention it to me, and then bring up the fact that we did not win the game, and then bring up the fact that they beat us the next time too,” he said.
Off the court, Johnson enjoys watching football, relaxing by playing video games or watching movies, and just being with his teammates doing whatever their small amounts of free time allow.
Despite all the challenges that come with transferring both as a student and a basketball player to Carolina, there is at least one point of comfort and familiarity in his life off the court: the food. “My dad is from South Carolina so I’m kinda familiar with southern food. My grandma taught my mom how to cook a bunch of southern food, so we eat it pretty often.”
Johnson said that “there’s some minor restaurant changes,” but the family ties have made at least that point a little easier for the the Moon Township, Pennsylvania native.
Now having fully made the transition to Carolina, and with the men’s basketball regular season on the horizon, Cam Johnson is embracing the challenge of playing for a team fresh off a national championship run and its second championship game in as many years. “I think coming to a team that just hung a banner means expectations are high, which I have no problem with,” he said.
If you’re still left with some doubts as to how Johnson will fit in with the team, rest easy. Theo Pinson already has a nickname for him: ‘Cameroon.’
“There’s nothing to it. Theo one day just called me ‘Cameroon’ and some guys just kinda ran with it," Johnson said. "I’d say it’s better than my nickname at Pitt.”
“Ah, we don’t need to worry about that. That’s in the past, right?”
Welcome home, Cam.
Photo by Smith Hardy