CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Cameron Johnson is grateful for something simple entering his final season at North Carolina: the ability to spread his feet in a wide defensive stance without the mix of pain and limited motion in his left hip.
It’s been roughly six months since the 6-foot-8 graduate student had an arthroscopic procedure to correct issues that had plagued him back into his high school career. And that has Johnson feeling free to “just do more” in conditioning and preseason drills.
“I feel like I’m in a much better place to build, especially on skillsets and movement and playing in the system,” Johnson said Tuesday during the Tar Heels’ preseason media day. “I feel like I can keep building rather than taking steps one day and then the body kind of hits me saying, ‘Whoa, slow down.'”
Johnson said his recovery from the April 16 procedure has gone to plan, and that’s good news for the Tar Heels. He’s one of three returning starters and averaged 11.9 points last season, his first after transferring from Pittsburgh as a graduate with two years of eligibility remaining.
He also brings size, rebounding (4.5) and outside shooting (41.5 percent on 3-pointers) to the Tar Heels’ perimeter, which lost program mainstays Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson.
He put up those numbers despite dealing with the hip problem, one Johnson described a bone impingement and a torn labrum.
The issue manifested in several ways. Chasing a shooter around a screen was perilous because taking a bump to the thigh could trigger the muscles to tighten and aggravate the issue, leading to “a good 15 minutes of some real aching” and attempts to massage the muscles to loosen it up.
There was also the day-to-day “dull ache” and restrictions in movement as he tried to change direction or close out on a shooter, as well as stiffness following games or workouts.
“It was just part of my experience — I had never played without it,” Johnson said.
While he can’t pinpoint exactly when it surfaced during high school, he remembers when it became apparent: during his first year at Pitt.
“My coaches were like, ‘Spread your feet, get in a stance, get in a stance,'” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘It really doesn’t feel like it wants to go there.’ They were like, ‘Ah, you just need to strengthen this, strengthen that, stretch this, stretch that.’
“And I’m like: ‘I really don’t think this feels the way it’s supposed to feel.'”
Yet it wasn’t always obvious to those around him, either. Teammate Kenny Williams said he knew the hip bothered Johnson but he never really talked about it and “honestly I couldn’t really tell.”
“We were always aware of it and perhaps subbed him more or gave him a few more days here and there,” coach Roy Williams said. “But I think (after) the surgery, we went as slow as you could possibly go this summer. He was mad at everybody because he wanted to get out there and be able to play earlier.
“He looks like he’s moving more freely. He looks like he doesn’t have as much pain, doesn’t look as stiff, so I think it’s been really helpful.”
Things have rarely been easy for Johnson in his time with the Tar Heels — or even before he got to play for them.
There was a transfer dispute when Pitt tried to prevent him from being eligible to play immediately at UNC.
Even though Pitt relented, Johnson didn’t get to play for the Tar Heels until December. That’s because he missed the opener with a neck sprain, then suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee at practice three days later and needed surgery that would keep him out another 10 games.
And he was battered coming down the stretch, too. He injured his back when a Miami player fell on him during the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, then reinjured it and played only 23 minutes in the loss to Virginia in the title game.
Maybe things will be easier this time around.
“I take good as relative, and for me right now I definitely say I feel very good,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how good 100 percent is because I feel like I’m finding a new 100 percent.”