Joel James and Brice Johnson Seniors, But Still Improving


Joel James and Brice Johnson may be seniors, but they are still improving on the basketball court for the North Carolina Tar Heels.

There is a common narrative that I honestly struggle with when it comes to college athletes. I struggle with the narrative of improvement. When a player enrolls in school as a two or three or four or five-star recruit, fans like myself read so much into those first few performances and make swift judgements. Because of Twitter and websites that cover the every move and decision of top high school recruits, fans like myself often focus more on the stars than about the ceiling of players and where they can grow.

Part of the reason for this gap in judgement is because we as fans only have access to a small part of the process and the program that college athletes go through. The games are broadcast on national television and the performances are put on a pedestal to be judged, for better or for worse. But the practices, the long nights spent at the gym working on the game, the weight training, all that isn’t projected as loudly.

I also struggle when it comes to realizing that upperclassmen, seniors and juniors, can still improve as well. Even juniors and seniors are not finished products as athletes. They are still practicing every day and working on their games and can still surprise you.

This past week, two North Carolina seniors had perhaps the best stretches of their careers. Fans knew Brice Johnson was good, but they had never seen him play this good. And Joel James, cast off as a role player or as an unfinished product who could never quite live up to expectations, just played the best three game stretch in his career.


Joel James is a senior center from West Palm Beach, Florida. He is, at his best, a role player for the Tar Heels. He averages 3.1 points and 3.4 boards per game for the Tar Heels this season; those are both career high numbers.

North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina Tar Heels /

North Carolina Tar Heels

James was a four star recruit and the 60th ranked player in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2012. For James, he came in as a raw prospect with great physical tools but not much polish as a post player. The narrative looked like it was set in stone for James after the early part of this season concluded — James would play a role as a senior and as a role player, but always leave something to be desired with his play on the offensive end.

Then, suddenly, the last three games happened. Here are James’ stats from the last three contests.

vs. Georgia Tech: 21 minutes played, 11 points, five boards, 5-6 FG shooting

@ Florida State: 10 minutes played, two points, three boards, 1-3 FG shooting

@ Syracuse: 10 minutes played, six points, six boards, 3-5 FG shooting

The offensive ratings for those three games? 147, 114, 140.

With Kennedy Meeks out, when his team needed him to start and step up and play a bigger role and play more important minutes, Joel James stepped up and had the best three game stretch of his career.


Brice Johnson is a senior power forward from Orangeburg, South Carolina. He has always been a great scorer and a great finisher, but in the last three games, he has taken his play to new levels.

More from North Carolina Tar Heels

His 39 point, 23 rebound game set off a firestorm on Twitter, and for good reason. He was 14-16 from the field and looked unstoppable.

But I was even more impressed with his eight assist game against Syracuse. Johnson’s previous career high in assists was four, against Oakland on November 8th, 2013. Coming into the game, I would have pegged him as an okay passer, but against Syracuse, he was a great one, zipping the necessary cross court passes needed to beat the zone horizontally and threading the needle with passes inside to Isaiah Hicks and others.

It was another side of Brice Johnson, another step in the evolution of his game, that I never expected to see.


There’s something to be said about these two, and about the value of a four-year senior in your basketball program. A lot of the Class of 2012 recruits are all gone. A lot of the names in the top 10 are gone to the NBA. But Joel James and Brice Johnson are still at Carolina, still improving, still playing their best basketball.

And there is also something for fans like myself to learn here. Brice Johnson is still growing, Joel James is still growing, the team is still growing. Be careful labeling the players; I know I will going forward.

Hats off to Joel James and Brice Johnson for continuing to improve their games even as fourth year seniors.