CHAPEL HILL, NC — North Carolina forward Puff Johnsonwho missed the Tar Heels’ first two games of the season due to persistent knee pain is nearing a return, head coach Hubert Davis announced Monday.
“He trained yesterday and had limited reps today,” Davis said during his press conference Monday afternoon. “He gave everything to be able to train fully. I expect he’ll be training all week and ready when we go to Portland.”
The Tar Heels open the Phil Knight Invitational on November 24 (1 p.m. ET) with a matchup against Portland. They have two home games ahead of this coast-to-coast trip.
Four Star Newcomer Jalen WashingtonHe too, who is recovering from knee surgery, is about to return.
“Jalen is coming really close,” Davis said. “He trained with us. Last week he was able to play the entire pitch in training for the first time. Right after the Portland games, it could be an opportunity for Jalen to knock him out there during the games.”
Johnson is expected to heavily intervene in UNC’s rotation upon his return. He’ll be competing for minutes at places “3” and “4” with starter Leaky Black, sophomore Dontrez Styles and true freshman Tyler Nickel.
In his last appearance in a UNC uniform, Johnson scored 11 points, grabbed six rebounds and had an assist in the Tar Heels’ loss to Kansas in the National Championship Game. In 23 games last season, Johnson averaged 3.1 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 10.4 minutes per game. He shot 45.9 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from three. Injuries have plagued his tar heel career so far, as he missed 15 games each in his first two seasons at Chapel Hill.
The former four-star recruit should be lining up for a bigger role as a wing/forward hybrid, capable of guarding multiple positions and scoring from anywhere on the pitch.
“Throughout the season, both Puff and Dontrez were getting more and more playing time because they just kept getting better,” Davis said in June. “That’s what I want for them – that they have to take the next step. Puff was healthy. I want them to build on the things they did well last year so that they’ll be able to have a bigger role next year. We need them.”
After losing last season’s leading three-point shooter, Brady ManekJohnson’s road to more playing time begins behind the arc. Though Johnson is a 20 percent three-pointer in his career, it’s a small sample size and improvements are expected, especially considering his reputation and bloodlines (his brother Cam is one of the NBA’s biggest threats).
“If I were a puff, I would have done most of the off-season work than filming.” At Carolina’s Ross Martin said in Johnson’s Player Preview. “If he can come in and take a couple of shots, stay put. Without Brady Manek, he’s a player who comes in and really stretches the pitch and is the third or fourth three-pointer. His brother is an incredible marksman – it’s in his blood.”
Despite not being a regular on the court during his first two seasons at Chapel Hill (307 total minutes), Johnson has utilized his time on the court, averaging 2+ points and 2+ rebounds in 11 of the 13 games he has in the last Season played more than 10 minutes.
“What strikes me is how active he is,” Martin said. “He’s very aggressive on defense. He’s active as a rebounder. He brings that energy. Last year he said, ‘Man, I got my shot here. I’m going to be here for five minutes and I have to do most of it. ‘”