By ROSS MARTIN
Cameron Johnson is back on the court and feeling better than ever.
Johnson was an added boost last season for a North Carolina team needing sure-shooting and a versatile body at the small forward spot. The 6-foot-8 Pennsylvania native had a solid first year at UNC after transferring from Pittsburgh, but enters his second and last season in Chapel Hill looking to build on what he and the Tar Heels achieved in 2017-18. That started with offseason arthroscopic hip surgery on April 16.
The procedure was designed to correct issues Johnson had been having since high school that affected his mobility. Last season he began an extensive stretching and warm-up routine four hours before tipoff. Then after games Johnson would suffer through stiffness, soreness, and pain — longer and more extreme than the normal uncomfortableness that other players felt.
Johnson didn’t play in pick up games this summer, he was inactive during camps inside the Smith Center, and he did not play in North Carolina’s four summer team practices, or the two exhibition games in the Bahamas. With plenty of time before the start of the 2018-19 basketball season, Johnson and the UNC staff wanted to take it slow. There was no need to rush.
Johnson was a full participant in UNC’s September conditioning and was 100 percent for UNC’s first practice on Sept. 26. There was no excessive soreness or lingering pain outside of what is expected and normal.
“There have been so many of those moments lately when I realize I’m not feeling the pain I felt before,” Johnson told Adam Lucas of GoHeels.com. “On those conditioning days, I feel like my stride has opened up. So I’m only fighting the typical fatigue you feel during conditioning, I’m not fighting hip pain. It’s really nice to only fight one battle. And the next day I don’t feel terrible. I’ve played multiple games of pickup and done conditioning and the next day I wake up and feel good, like I can do it again. That’s such a huge burden off my shoulders.”
With a full slate of October practices ahead, Late Night with Roy around the corner on Oct. 12, and the start of the season on Nov. 6, Johnson is preparing for his final run as a Tar Heel. He is expected to start alongside seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, and may compete with freshman Nassir Little for time at the “three” and “four” spots.
But Johnson has experience and a sweet shooting stroke. Coach Roy Williams trusts him and the chemistry he has with Maye and Williams will be invaluable for a UNC team looking to make a deep March run. And now with his hip surgery and rehabilitation in the rear view, Johnson has a chance to be better. He believes he can expand his game and do many things better now than ever before.
“I’ve been experimenting with some things in pickup to see what I can do physically now,” Johnson said in the article on the school’s site. “I can try some different patterns of movement both offensively and defensively. There were some basic footwork issues that were a challenge before. Spreading my feet apart and sinking into a defensive stance—I just couldn’t do that before. I had little cheats in my head I would use because I knew my limitations on how I could defend someone. Now I want to see how I can move on offense and on defense with and without the ball and see how it all comes together. At this point right now, this is the best I’ve ever felt in college and it might be the best I’ve ever felt in my life.”
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