Los Angeles Clippers 2016-17 report cards: Brice Johnson

Los Angeles Clippers forward Brice Johnson dribbles the ball around Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports.

Brice Johnson did not see the floor much in his rookie season, but his skill set will be useful to the Los Angeles Clippers once he recovers from his injuries.

The Los Angeles Clippers opted to improve their big man depth in the 2017 NBA Draft. Before taking Diamond Stone in the second round, the Clippers picked UNC stalwart Brice Johnson 25th overall. Johnson earned his way into the first round with a fantastic senior season that ended with a First-Team AP All-America selection. He averaged 17 points and 10.4 rebounds a game for a solid Tar Heels squad.

Johnson played well for the Clippers in the Orlando Summer League. Although the team went 0-5, Johnson led the team in scoring and rebounding with 15.4 points and 6.8 boards per game. Johnson also made 50 percent of his field goals and 85 percent of his free throws. He showed his athletic prowess throughout the Clippers’ Orlando slate and looked ready for a promising rookie year.

Unfortunately, Johnson suffered a herniated disc in his back during the preseason. He missed 56 games with the injury. Brice Johnson played just nine minutes for the Clippers during the 2016-17 season. He also played limited minutes in a short D-League stint. While Johnson is still a superb athlete, the jury is still out on his future after a mostly lost season.

Offense

Brice Johnson grew steadily on the offensive end throughout his four years at UNC. While he is still a bit too skinny for his 6’10” frame, Johnson did bulk up during his time in North Carolina. He steadily improved his interior game in college, while retaining his freakish athleticism.

The Los Angeles Clippers probably saw a little bit of DeAndre Jordan in Johnson’s game. While Brice is a little smaller than DJ and will not be the same caliber of defensive player (barring an extraordinary change in his game), he is still a top-tier athlete at his position. Few bigs, even in the NBA, can match the combination of speed and leaping ability that Johnson displays on this play from Summer League:

Johnson can sky for alley-oops in transition and pick-and-roll situations in a similar manner to DeAndre. Unfortunately, his jump shot is similarly non-existent. Johnson never attempted a shot beyond the arc during his college career, and his midrange jumpers were also few and far between.

That being said, Johnson improved from a 57.7 percent mark from the free throw line as a freshman to a 78.3 percent mark as a senior. His Summer League play solidified the notion that he can now make shots from the charity stripe, as did his 71.4 percent hit rate in limited D-League minutes.

Although Johnson did not get the chance to show this much during his rookie year, he can capably carry out most of DeAndre Jordan’s offensive burden as a backup. While any evaluation of his offensive ceiling is tempered by a minuscule sample size, he does have the hops and speed to make up for his relative lack of bulk.

Grade: B

Defense

Grading Johnson on the defensive end is a nearly impossible exercise. While he does have the speed and leaping ability to keep up with the more athletic bigs in the NBA, his willowy frame will be problematic at the NBA level.

Johnson put up good counting stats on defense while at UNC, averaging more than one steal per game and 1.5 blocks per game as a senior. However, he also struggled to guard players in pick-and-roll situations. He would often gamble on the perimeter and assume that he could get back into the play quickly enough to make up for it. While that worked at the college level, it will not be good enough in the NBA.

Johnson’s limited time in the D-League showed both his best and his worst defensive qualities. He averaged 1.5 blocks per game in just 19.4 minutes per game. However, he also averaged 3.2 fouls per game in those limited minutes.

The Los Angeles Clippers will be able to take advantage of Johnson’s athletic gifts on defense just as they will on offense. However, his relative lack of bulk will be more of an issue on defense than it will on offense. That lack of size will hurt his defensive ceiling at least as much as his overly foul-prone style.

Grade: C

Future Outlook

Brice Johnson may benefit from the advent of the Agua Caliente Clippers more than anyone not named Diamond Stone. Although much of his lack of playing time this year stemmed from his injury, he nonetheless was out of the rotation for the Clippers even after Blake Griffin‘s injury decimated their big man depth.

Johnson’s game at this stage of his career is mostly reliant on his elite athleticism. However, he still needs to learn to better harness those gifts, especially on the defensive end.

While he can (and will) learn a lot from practicing alongside DeAndre Jordan, he will benefit far more from getting to spend time on the floor in a defensive scheme similar to that of the Clippers.

Johnson might not have as much upside as some second-year players given his age. On the other hand, he did grow significantly as a player during each of his four years in college. That sustained improvement showed both his commitment to developing his game and his yet to be reached ceiling. Even if he tops out as an athletic backup big, he will be a useful piece for the Clippers going forward.

Grade: B

Overall

Brice Johnson’s athletic gifts and stellar senior season indicate solid NBA upside. If he can put on an additional 20 pounds or so of muscle, he could easily be a top-tier backup big. He may even be able to eventually work his way into a starting lineup.

However, there is scant evidence at the professional level to back that up. Johnson only played nine NBA minutes last season, and barely over 100 minutes in the D-League. Although he was impressive in Summer League, that is nowhere near enough to draw definitive conclusions about his future. Josh Selby shared a Summer League MVP trophy with Damian Lillard once upon a time.

Brice Johnson certainly has potential, and the Clippers should be ecstatic about him getting G-League minutes next year. However, his rookie season essentially ended before it began due to injury. Until he spends enough time on the floor to change that, any exercise in grading him is fundamentally rooted in speculation.

Grade: Incomplete

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