Big-Shot Cam

Cameron Johnson doesn't try to hit the big shots for his new team. It just happens.

They aren't the "big shots" most North Carolina fans are accustomed to with this roster — a last-second floater from Joel Berry or a buzzer-beating jumper from Luke Maye. They're the ones that keep a home blowout from collapsing into a résumé-staining ACC loss.

Johnson did it again Saturday in UNC's mostly unremarkable 80-66 win over Georgia Tech. He finished with 16 points, tied with Berry and one shy of Maye's game-high 17 points, as the Tar Heels (16-4, 5-2 ACC) took care of the underachieving Yellow Jackets (10-9, 3-3 ACC).

The transfer from Pittsburgh finished 6-for-12 from the field, a step down from his career night Tuesday against Clemson. But it was his big shots — the ones that stave off momentum and reignite an offense — that saved North Carolina.

"I'm not quite sure I recognize that at the time," Johnson said. "I'm just kind of playing with the flow of the game."

 Cameron Johnson (13) scored 16 points in Saturday's win, but it was a few big shots that kept the Tar Heels in the contest. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson (13) scored 16 points in Saturday's win, but it was a few big shots that kept the Tar Heels in the contest. | Photo by Alex Kormann

It's when the flow is worst for UNC that Johnson seems to be at his best.

The 6-foot-8 forward missed his first three shots Saturday and was on the bench when Georgia Tech mounted an early 22-17 lead, largely on the back of a trapping defense that gave the Tar Heels fits early.

But it was Johnson's three-pointer out of a media timeout that kept North Carolina alive. And it was his slick assist to Berry, after some fanciful transition dribbling through the Yellow Jacket defense, that capped off a 6-0 run to reclaim the lead.

"Coming off the injury, he's starting to get his legs back again," Berry said, referring to Johnson's torn meniscus that cost him the first 12 games of the year. "He's going to be a big-time player for us down the road."

He made another big shot in the second half, when it seemed like Georgia Tech might actually replicate its stunner of UNC from last season.

The Tar Heels pushed its lead to 15 points with 15:51 left, courtesy of a one-handed flush from Jalek Felton that seemingly sucked the energy from the visiting Yellow Jackets. But Georgia Tech roared back, ripping off a 12-2 run to pull within five.

So, on the ensuing possession, Johnson caught the ball on the right block and sized up the 6-foot Jose Alvarado, whose late fracas with Berry earned him Smith Center vitriol.

 Cameron Johnson (13) uses his 6-foot-8 frame to shoot over defenders with ease. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson (13) uses his 6-foot-8 frame to shoot over defenders with ease. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Then, without hesitation, Johnson slid into his smooth jump-shooting form and sailed one over Alvarado. The basket spurred a quick 6-0 run that kept Georgia Tech at bay for the rest of the game.

"He's just getting the flow, that's all it is," said Theo Pinson, who notched his second career double-double on Saturday. "Once you get back in that basketball flow, you start playing better. And you can tell he's in that groove."

He finally found his groove Tuesday, when he scored a season-high 21 points against Clemson and tied his career high with six threes after hitting as many in his previous five games combined. They came at the perfect time then, too — three in quick succession to start the second half and one to thwart the Tigers' late comeback attempt.

Berry, who missed 14 of his 17 shots Saturday, stressed the importance of other players stepping up when UNC's leaders struggle. In the past two games, Johnson has answered the call.

"We want him to hit shots," Berry said. "That's what he came here for."

His habit for timely buckets is reminiscent, in some ways, to another 6-foot-8 shooter who always seemed to break UNC's cold spells in 2016-17.

 Cameron Johnson's penchant for big-time buckets might remind some fans of Justin Jackson (above), who was honored at halftime of Saturday's game. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Cameron Johnson's penchant for big-time buckets might remind some fans of Justin Jackson (above), who was honored at halftime of Saturday's game. | Photo by Alex Kormann

No, Cameron Johnson isn't Justin Jackson, the former ACC Player of the Year who was honored at halftime of Saturday's game. There are probably more differences in their games than similarities, despite fans' insistence on comparing the two at the start of the year.

Johnson says he still hears the comparison at times, even 20 games into the season. But that knack for righting the ship when the offense is sinking, for taking the ball on the block and popping it over a smaller defender when his team absolutely needs a bucket — the similarity is hard to avoid, no?

"To be compared to somebody who produced like that, it's not necessarily a bad thing," Johnson said. "There are worse guys to be compared to. (But) he's his own player, I'm my own player and that's that."

He's right. Johnson isn't Jackson, and he doesn't need to be.

The Tar Heels are 4-0 with him in the lineup and 4-0 when he hits multiple threes. He's a starter, despite Roy Williams' abhorrence for small-ball lineups, and he's a vital piece for this UNC team: a shooter whose blood runs cold when the offense does.

Johnson is already a big-time player for his new team — even if he doesn't try to be.

@CJacksonCowart

Header photo by Gabi Palacio; story photos by Alex Kormann