Johnson Honored At UNC, As Frustrating Rookie Year Starts Looking Up
LOS ANGELES – Around the same time DeAndre Jordan, in his black No. 6 Clippers jersey, hoisted himself into the air to receive the ball from DJ Khaled at the All-Star Dunk Contest in New Orleans, another Clippers jersey was being hoisted up 850 miles away.
Clippers rookie Brice Johnson’s watched his No. 11 Tar Heels jersey get lifted into the rafters at the University of North Carolina during halftime of UNC’s win against Virginia, as he was honored alongside fellow four-year player Marcus Paige in an emotional ceremony.
“It was crazy,” Johnson said. “They showed a video of us, a couple of our highlights. It almost made me tear up in the video.”
North Carolina tried to find a good weekend to get Johnson, who averaged 17 points and 10.4 rebounds per game his senior year at North Carolina, and Paige, who’s made the third-most 3-pointers in school history, back to Chapel Hill.
All-Star Weekend made sense for Johnson, now with the Clippers, and Paige, who’s currently with the D-League’s Salt Lake City Stars. It only made sense both of them would get honored at the same time.
“Me and Marcus were roommates for four years,” Johnson said. “They called us ‘The Odd Couple.’ We’re like brothers, brothers for life, all that stuff. We were inseparable at times.”
The two still keep in touch – mostly on Snapchat, but occasionally talking on the phone – and Johnson describes Paige more like a brother than a friend. If not for a miraculous Villanova buzzer-beater, it’s possible the last game they played together would’ve included an NCAA title.
As Johnson watched the ceremony and the thousands of fans standing and applauding his four years of work, one thought crept into his mind.
“I wish I could play one more,” Johnson said. “Wish I could play one more game there. Walking back in there for the first time, they put you on the videoboard as you walk in there and everybody’s going crazy, it’s a surreal feeling. I wanted to be remembered somehow, whether it be team-wise or individually-wise. I was able to do that.”
At North Carolina, it was a slow grind for Johnson to go from a freshman averaging 5.4 points per game to a double-double machine as a senior.
In the NBA, he’s already seen more roadblocks in his short grind.
Johnson didn’t make his NBA debut until he returned from the jersey ceremony and All-Star break, with a herniated disc in his back keeping him out the majority of his rookie season. Admittedly, it’s been tough to stay positive at times.
“I’ve never really been hurt before, so I don’t really know how to react to it,” Johnson said. “Just been trying to stay in here with these guys keep learning. I feel like I’ve learned a lot just being with this guys, listening to them.”
He’s listened to one person in particular. While Johnson may not have Paige by his side anymore, he does have a veteran who understands what he’s going through.
Blake Griffin, who missed his entire rookie season following knee surgery, has been a valuable resource for Johnson as he works himself back into shape.
“I think he’s been the most positive through this whole process,” Johnson said. “Just him telling me, ‘Hey, I didn’t play my first year, it’s OK, just trust what you’re doing.’”
There were days Griffin offered advice. Other times, he’d back off and just let the exasperated rookie be frustrated. After all, Griffin knows what that feels like, and he knows how an injury can wear a young player down, particularly one not accustomed to being sidelined.
Through it all, though, Griffin constantly reminded Johnson his career is a marathon and not a sprint.
“You have those bad days where you don’t feel as good, that’s when it really wears on you,” Griffin said. “It’s hard to see that when you’re, what is Brice, 22? But he’s very, very mature, and I think he’s handled it really well.”
Unlike Johnson’s situation, Griffin missed his entire rookie season after knee surgery. There was a time, as Johnson went through his rehab, he wondered if he’d have the same fate.
“At one point, there was a high percentage chance I would have to have surgery,” Johnson said.
Luckily, he avoided it.
And he knew he was out of the woods at a recent practice, when he got up and down the court and threw down a dunk. Johnson’s thankful the season-ending surgery was never needed, and in mop-up duty at Golden State, the Clippers’ No. 25 overall pick saw his first NBA minutes, pulling down two rebounds in three minutes of action.
“I’m just trying to encourage him that this is just the beginning for him,” Griffin said.