Cam Johnson is betting on Pittsburgh failing in its needless attempt to keep him off the floor next season.
The prized graduate transfer announced Tuesday that he’ll transfer to North Carolina even though it remains uncertain whether he’ll be able to play right away for the Tar Heels.
Having graduated from Pittsburgh in three years but only played for the Panthers in two of those seasons, Johnson is the rare graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. Graduate transfers typically have the right to play immediately at any school of their choice, but Pittsburgh chose to place a restriction on Johnson that would force him to sit out next season and burn a year of eligibility if he transfers to a fellow ACC school.
Johnson received offers from many of the nation’s top programs, from Kentucky, to Arizona, to UCLA, to Oregon, to Ohio State. But when key players at his position withdrew from the draft at Kentucky and Arizona, Johnson decided that North Carolina was the ideal choice for him even if it meant risking having to sit out next season.
The lingering question now is whether Johnson will win his fight to play right away at the school of his choice. In a lengthy statement released Tuesday to the Raleigh News & Observer and other media outlets, Johnson outlined his case for why Pittsburgh’s restrictions are unjust.
“On June 2, I was informed that the NCAA had determined that Pitt’s attempt to make me “serve a year of residence prior to being eligible for competition” does not apply to graduate transfers per bylaw 14.6.1.,” Johnson wrote. “According to the NCAA, this bylaw means graduate transfers must be immediately eligible or totally denied from attending a school. Having already won the right to “immediately receive athletically related financial aid” from an ACC institution at my appeal hearing, I believe, as does my family’s legal counsel, that I should be immediately eligible at North Carolina.”
One recourse for Johnson is to continue to put pressure Pittsburgh through the media while North Carolina negotiates with administrators behind the scenes. A last resort would be challenging the legality of the restrictions in court in hopes of getting them overturned.
Other grad transfers from ACC programs have transferred within the league without having to sit out a year, but Pittsburgh has chosen to put its own interests above that of a student-athlete who represented the Panthers impeccably for three years.
Johnson is a two-time member of the ACC’s All-Academic Men’s Basketball team. He stayed loyal to Pittsburgh despite the school undergoing a coaching change last year and blossomed into one of the Panthers’ best players this past season. Now he’s leaving because Pittsburgh’s roster has been decimated by defections and graduation and he wants to play at a school that has a chance to be competitive the next two years.
In his statement Johnson noted that former coach Jamie Dixon and current coach Kevin Stallings “had the freedom to move as they pleased.”
“As a student-athlete, who is not a paid employee of the school, and a graduate, shouldn’t I be granted the same freedom of movement?” Johnson wrote.
The motivation for Pittsburgh’s restrictions appears to be concern about having to face Johnson once or twice a year in league play. In a statement released last month, Pittsburgh explained that Johnson and his family were informed of its athletic department policy against transfers within the ACC when they elected to seek their release.
Having Johnson eligible next season is critical for a North Carolina program that must replace a handful of key players from last year’s national title team.
Johnson averaged 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a redshirt sophomore at Pittsburgh and shot 41.5 percent from behind the arc. He’s an ideal replacement for NBA-bound Justin Jackson because he’s capable of playing either forward position.
Considering that North Carolina is losing its three top big men from last season, Johnson may play heavy minutes at the four spot for the Tar Heels with Luke Maye serving as the team’s lone true starting big man. When Williams opts for a more traditional two-big man look, Johnson could slide to his more natural small forward position alongside Joel Berry and either Theo Pinson or Kenny Williams.
Of course all that is dependent on Johnson gaining immediate eligibility.
Pittsburgh has stood its ground for a few weeks. Now the Panthers will have to decide if it’s worth the firestorm of negative publicity to further dig in their heels.
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