Ann Arbor — Ask about the Michigan basketball team’s pack of freshmen and you’re bound to hear the same phrase once or five times: They’re talented.
It’s no surprise those were among the first words sophomore guard Jordan Poole, junior guard Zavier Simpson, redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and interim head coach Saddi Washington all used to describe the five-member class, which is rated No. 12 in the nation and No. 3 in the Big Ten in the 247Sports Composite rankings.
“They're good,” Matthews said last week of newcomers Ignas Brazdeikis, Brandon Johns, David DeJulius, Colin Castleton and Adrien Nunez. “The main thing is I love their confidence. Those guys are not backing down. They come in ready to play.”
But the one freshman who is seemingly brimming with confidence and appears to be having no trouble fitting in is Brazdeikis, a 6-foot-7, 215-pound forward who was a top-50 recruit and considered the jewel of the group.
During last week’s practice session that was open to the media, Brazdeikis put his scoring ability on display in a five-on-five scrimmage. On one play, he drove against Matthews — one of the team’s top defenders — and flexed after finishing through contact at the rim.
Later, he came off a screen set by junior center Jon Teske atop the key and knocked down a mid-range jumper over redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis. To cap it off, he scooped up a loose ball and dribbled nearly the full length of the court before converting a layup through traffic — and flexing one more time for good measure.
Asked about his comfort level on a scale of 1-10, Brazdeikis didn’t blink.
“At least a 10,” Brazdeikis said. “I feel very comfortable out there. Every time I play I'm fully involved into the game. I don't think about plays, it just kind of naturally flows for me.”
Yet as advanced as Brazdeikis and his game might be, he admitted he has adjustments to make at both ends of the court.
Defense remains one of the toughest transitions for anybody making the jump from high school to college, and Brazdeikis isn’t an exception. He struggled to fight through a screen set by Davis and allowed Matthews to get around him for an and-one layup. He was also beaten off the dribble by Matthews on one possession and was forced to foul to prevent an easy basket.
And as skillful as he is offensively, he’s still adapting to the speed of the game at the college level.
“I noticed at first it's when I catch the ball, it's whether I have to shoot or drive because they close out a lot faster than in high school basketball,” Brazdeikis said. “I'm adjusting to whether I have to shoot or attack. Now I'm finally getting the gist of that and shooting a lot faster.
“Coach Yak (Luke Yaklich) has been on me every single practice on defense and it definitely is difficult because there are such high-level players. I'm guarding Charles Matthews every single practice, but it's good. I'm really competing out there and I’m definitely learning a lot.”
Still, Brazdeikis looks poised to make a significant impact as a freshman.
He averaged 32.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in league play during rigorous prep schedule at Orangeville Prep in Mono, Ontario, as a senior. He has played in FIBA events with Team Canada in the past and participated in the Nike Hoop Summit earlier this year. He has a chiseled frame and has been working on improving his mobility with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson.
With Matthews expected to play the bulk of the minutes at small forward, Brazdeikis has the versatility with his inside-outside game, ball handling skills and shot-creating ability to play multiple roles. He already has been spending time at shooting guard and power forward — learning two positions doesn’t often happen right away for newcomers in Michigan coach John Beilein’s system — with the vision of becoming position-less and fitting into any lineup.
It’s something Brazdeikis is getting used to and isn’t shy about shouldering, much like the hopes that are tied to him and his fellow freshmen.
“We have high expectations of ourselves every single day we come into practice, and my mentality is to never back down from anybody,” Brazdeikis said. “We're looked at as a great class and we definitely want to hold up to those expectations.”