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What’s next for UNC’s Puff Johnson and Dontrez Styles?

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Even now, months after North Carolina’s national championship game appearance, Puff Johnson still gets the same question:

How did you throw up?

“People really want to know about that,” Johnson said last month. “The part where a little bit of my saliva got on the floor.”

Which is, uh, one way to put it. The more complete way? With about four and a half minutes left in the national title game against Kansas, Johnson fell to his knees on the floor after being hit in the stomach. He was sick for several seconds — no further explanation needed — before leaving the court, and didn’t return until the game’s final minute, after Armando Bacot exited with his own ankle injury. Weird (and kinda gross), for sure. It’s no shock that strangers, and even Johnson’s teammates, have ribbed him about his retching from him.

But that story also omits something important: Prior to collapsing, Johnson’s breakout performance was a big reason UNC was even still in contention for the championship. His 11 points from him, including one made 3, were n’t a career- or even season-high, but couple that with his six rebounds and an assist, and you have one of the better games of Johnson’s two-year college career .

“People don’t really focus on that,” Johnson said with a smirk.

Now, though, with the season slowly coming into focus, Johnson’s actual performance on that stage is much more significant. Last season, and especially the latter half of it, the Tar Heels took their game to the next level courtesy of the “Iron Five” — and now, a key staple of that squad, Brady Manek, is out of eligibility. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance will help fill that void, but even still, Hubert Davis’ team needs more depth than it had last year; Davis said so himself earlier this summer. “I don’t want to play five,” the coach said in June. “I want to have a bigger rotation.” The good news is, in Johnson — as well as rising sophomore Dontrez Styles — Davis has the maturing bodies to build out an actual bench.

In his inaugural season as head coach, Davis only played six players at least 15 minutes per game — and one of those, Dawson Garcia, left the program midseason. Johnson and Styles barely cleared that mark combined, averaging 16.2 minutes — 10.4 for Johnson, 5.8 for Styles — and just 5.1 points per game. Modest contributions, most definitely. But during the NCAA Tournament, both also showed flashes of what their futures might hold.

For Styles, those came against Marquette and Baylor, UNC’s first two March Madness contests. Styles had six points, six rebounds and an assist in the Tar Heels’ first-round blowout over Marquette, but also two turnovers and two fouls. He followed that up, though, with his most-important game of the season: nine points — including a clutch 3-pointer in overtime — three rebounds, two steals, and an assist in the team’s upset win over the reigning national champion Bears. “That was all pretty good for me and my confidence,” Styles said in July. The corner 3-pointer Styles hit to open overtime, he said, was his favorite play of the season.

It was a similar late-season surge with Johnson. The various hip and ankle injuries that cost Johnson the back half of his freshman season lingered into his sophomore campaign, meaning he didn’t even see the floor until mid-January. From then on, it was a slow ramping-up process, punctuated by standout — but standalone — performances against NC State (16 points, five rebounds), Marquette (11 points, three rebounds), and eventually, Kansas in the national championship.

Now the challenge for both is clear: parlay that improvement into more consistency, and become the wing contributors North Carolina needs to get back to the same championship stage.

And despite the year difference between the two, Johnson and Styles enter this offseason from a similar standpoint. For Johnson, it’s his first healthy offseason of college; as a freshman, he was slowed by COVID-19 and its subsequent protocols, and last summer it was the lingering injuries. As for Styles, his first college offseason included transitioning from high school, playing for a different head coach than the one who recruited him, and dealing with several remaining COVID-19 limitations. Not an easy path for either. Instead, this summer, there have been workouts with the staff. Scrimmages with former players. You know: the sorts of activities young players need to hone their skills.

“Last summer, I came in here and I didn’t know what to expect. Now I know,” Styles said. “What kind of work to put in, how much you’ve gotta work, just being consistent. I’m just better (with my) knowledge of the game and the college system.”

That knowledge has included playing multiple positions, as both Styles and Johnson have positional versatility along the perimeter.

Styles said Davis primarily has him practicing at the three, but also “at the four a little bit to play small-ball.” That makes sense, given Styles’ athleticism at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds and his proficiency inside of him. For example: Per Synergy, even with a small sample size, two of Styles’ three most-efficient offensive actions were on cuts (1,250 points per possession) and offensive put-backs (1 PPP). Comparatively, in spot-up scenarios, Styles only averaged 0.696 PPPs, making just 33.3 percent of his field-goal attempts. That Baylor 3 may have been Styles’ best play all season, but it was far from his standard; I have made just two other 3-pointers all season, on 18 total attempts.

Johnson had slightly more 3-point success than Styles — he made six of 26 such attempts last season, including 2-of-6 during the NCAA Tournament — but it wasn’t his calling card either. That might seem surprising given Johnson’s lineage, but the 6-foot-8, 190-pound wing said he’s always played a little differently than his older brother, Cameron. “My parents always told me from a young age that I’m a better rebounder than he was,” Johnson said, “and just more aggressive underneath the basket.” And that tracks, like with Styles, in the advanced metrics. Per KenPom, Johnson had the best 2-point percentage on the team last season (62.9 percent), although obviously on a much smaller sample size than Bacot and Manek. And per Synergy, Johnson’s two best offensive actions were in transition (1.500 PPP) and offensive putbacks (1.4259 PPP) — both of which register above the 90th percentile nationally, or as “excellent.”

For all the similarities between the two, there are key differences, too: namely, in how they’ve gone about getting better this offseason. For Johnson, his older brother’s insight is invaluable. In two seasons at UNC, the elder Johnson — now with the Phoenix Suns — hit 41.1 percent of his 3s and was one of the ACC’s top players. Johnson said the two talk daily, and often more than once, with big brother criticizing little brother’s game and adjusting his training regimens.

Styles, on the other hand, has found comfort with director of player and team development, Jackie Manuel, who last season propelled Leaky Black to a career-best campaign. Black revealed in the fall that he’d struggled with anxiety throughout his college career, and Manuel helped him improve his mental health. “Y’all probably saw where (Leaky) talked about his therapist and having anxiety, and sometimes I maybe feel the same way,” Styles said. “We relate with that type of thing.” It was Manuel’s on- and off-court support that elevated Black’s game, and now he’s doing the same for Styles. “That’s been taking Trez’s game to the next level,” Black said. “Trez has been playing his butt off.” That means Manuel holding Styles accountable for 7 am workouts and shooting sessions, but also teaching him to accept that everything will come together in due time.

Now the question — for Styles, but also Johnson — is if due time is this fall. Nance and the four “Iron Five” holdovers should start the season, but both Styles and Johnson will factor heavily into the rotation thereafter; it wouldn’t be a surprise if those two are Davis’ first off the bench.

Only this season, unlike last, floating flashes won’t be enough.

Not if UNC wants to rewrite last season’s ending, that is.

(Photo of Puff Johnson, left, and Dontrez Styles: Robert Deutsch / USA Today)


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