When North Carolina forward Puff Johnson suffered the latest injury setback in what has been a recurring theme of his three seasons in Chapel Hill, he turned to the one person who knows exactly how he was feeling.
His older brother has been through it, too.
Cameron Johnson, who played for the Tar Heels from 2017-19, had his debut at Carolina after transferring from Pitt delayed by a preseason knee injury. He’s also currently out of the Phoenix Suns lineup after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t talk to him,” Puff Johnson said. “I share my I share my highest highs with him, I share my lowest lows with him, just because he has a good understanding of what I’m going through. And he’s been at this level and has been really successful at this level. So I try to lean on him not only because that’s my brother, but also because of the fact that he was here.”
Puff is one of three players on Carolina’s roster who are the younger siblings of past players. Freshman guard Seth Trimble is the younger brother of J.P. Tokoto. Junior forward Beau Maye, who is in his first season as a walk-on, is the younger brother of Luke Maye — although currently he might be more closely associated with being the older brother of UNC quarterback Drake Maye.
The Heels (5-4) return home after five games away from the Dean E. Smith Center — and a four game losing streak — to take on Georgia Tech on Saturday.
It will be Puff’s second home game of the season. He missed the first three games because of a knee injury, and it’s very much been the frustrating part of his career in Chapel Hill. He’s had some kind of setback every year.
“He’s in his third year there, but he’s had so much of it taken from him from things that he can’t control, that can be very frustrating and challenging,” Cameron, his brother, said. “I just try to remind him every day that he has to seize opportunities as they come and he can’t become hung up on on the past.”
As a freshman, he was out of practice for the better part of two weeks before the season opener because of COVID-19 protocol. Then he was sidelined the final 15 games with a sprained toe in his right foot.
As a sophomore, he missed the first 15 games of the season with a right ankle injury and a hip flexor.
Despite the injuries, Cameron said his brother has gotten a little better with handling them each time he’s had to sit out.
“Every time he’s just trying to plant his roots and get in, get momentum and find rhythm and his spot in the flow of the game, it’s been swept out from under his feet,” he said. “That’s the thing about him, he’s learned to be very resilient in that he can come in and still make plays and still be himself and still make an impact on the game. It’s hard but he’s handling it well.”
That’s why there’s a controlled recklessness to the way Puff plays. He’s diving for that loose ball. He’s slamming into the nearest opponent to block out for a rebound. He’s fighting post players with notable size and or weight advantages for position to keep them out of the paint. And he’s going to do it every time.
There’s no part of Puff’s game that is on cruise control.
“My goal, when I go out there, is just trying to make us the best team possible,” Puff said. “And my goal is just trying to elevate us, if it’s five minutes, if it’s 10 minutes, I just tried to elevate the way we’re playing. And I mean, that’s always been my goal, just try to be a winner, and just always just try my best to do everything I can to help the team win.”
It’s what has endeared Puff to Carolina fans, and what has made him earn the trust of head coach Hubert Davis to be one of the few bench players he relied on last season. Puff’s role has expanded this season, as he’s averaging 4.7 points and a career-high 18 minutes per game. He made his first career start Sunday at Virginia Tech, with Armando Bacot out of the lineup.
“The thing that I love about Puff is that he always brings it, and it doesn’t matter if he’s coming back from injury or not, he plays hard,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “And when you play hard, the ball just finds you on both ends of the floor.”
As much as Puff has become a fan favorite, at least one supporter is not so amused by his nickname.
And she’s the one that gave it to him.
Amy Johnson, Puff’s mother, attempted to mount a campaign to get him to go by his first name, Donovan. But his real name got surpassed ever since his kindergarten teacher heard him called by his nickname and asked him if that’s what he wanted to go by.
“She always said that if she could go back right now, she would never give me the nickname Puff,” he said. “But she tried one day to call me only Donovan and it never works, so she still calls me Puff. It’s my name at this point.”