'No pressure, no diamond': UM's Brazdeikis embraces high expectations
Ann Arbor — Word of Ignas Brazdeikis’ immense talent is already widespread throughout the college basketball world.
Two weeks ago at the Big Ten conference’s annual basketball media day, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann named Brazdeikis one of his freshmen to watch this season along with Indiana’s Romeo Langford — and that was admittedly without seeing the new Wolverine play much.
But for his Michigan teammates who have seen Brazdeikis up close and personal on the court, that message had already been delivered during the summer.
“The first day of open gym him and Charles (Matthews) are going at it,” junior guard Zavier Simpson said. “He's talking trash and that's immediately when I pulled him aside and I knew that we related a lot.
“He's just like me, he's a pit bull."
That same day left quite the impression on sophomore forward Isaiah Livers when Brazdeikis made it known from Day 1 there was going to be no hint of passiveness in his game and he wasn’t going to back down from anyone.
“The thing about him was he came in going after it,” Livers said. “I'm like, 'Yeah, OK.' Me, Charles, Jordan (Poole) and Zavier, we love to have more people come in and just go after it, go after it, go after it.
“I haven't heard of any freshman coming in talking like (MMA fighter) Conor McGregor. He's not like him literally, but his philosophy is based off Conor McGregor and I think that's where he gets all that confidence from.”
And confidence is nothing that is in short supply for Brazdeikis. It was a trait he developed throughout his childhood — he was born in Kaunas, Lithuania, emigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago when he was 2 years old, and then moved to Canada when he was about 5 — and a belief his family fostered that he could accomplish and do anything he wanted.
“Moving around a lot gave me toughness and confidence that I could overcome any obstacle that comes my way,” said Brazdeikis, who was mentored by former Michigan sharpshooter and fellow Lithuanian Canadian Nik Stauskas back home. “Coming on the basketball court is just a fun game I love to play, and I feel like I'm the best at it.
“(My confidence) doesn't change. I could have zero points in a game, 10 turnovers, after the game I'm still going to keep my head high.”
There’s also a sense of pride that drives Brazdeikis. He wants to make his home country proud and hopes to become the next NBA player with Lithuanian roots, following the footsteps of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas. And he carries his family name with him wherever he goes — it’s tattooed across his chest — as a constant reminder of who he represents.
But make no mistake, Brazdeikis craves the pressure and revels in the anticipation that comes with being the highest-ranked prospect in one of Michigan coach John Beilein’s most highly rated recruiting classes.
“I thrive under pressure. I put that pressure on myself and I only have very high expectations and I embrace it,” he said. “It means a lot more to me so every possession, every drill, every single game that we play in practice means the world to me. I never let my emotions get the best of me. I feel like I'm very cool and calm on the court, so I'm ready to go.”
It’s one reason Brazdeikis chose to wear the No. 13 jersey — one that was occupied by former big man Moritz Wagner, who was arguably the face of last season’s national runner-up team.
“I wanted that pressure, actually. I like pressure because if there's no pressure, there's no diamond,” Brazdeikis said. “I feel like putting that pressure on me will make even better and I'm excited to take that challenge on.”
By all accounts, Brazdeikis will be an impact player the moment Michigan’s season tips off. He’s a high-volume scorer who can knock down shots at all three levels, one reason why he has been spending time at the two and four positions to get him on the floor as much as possible.
According to Livers, Brazdeikis is “way above average” at finishing with both hands at the rim and has blown by “pretty much everyone” if he is given any type of leverage.
And at the age of 19, Brazdeikis is older than the average college freshman and his chiseled 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame is college-ready.
“He's just like a physical specimen, you know?” said freshman guard Adrien Nunez, whose prep school team crossed paths with Brazdeikis once last spring. “The biggest thing is trying to stay in front of him and then once you are in front of him trying to stay where you are because he's going to hit you and he's going move you if he wants to.”
Beilein said he has been impressed with Brazdeikis being “a sponge” and soaking up information like former Wolverines Tim Hardaway Jr., Caris LeVert and Stauskas did when they came in.
That goes for the defensive side of the ball, too, which is usually the one end of the court that holds freshmen back from playing time. Beilein said Brazdeikis has bought in defensively and has been causing deflections and creating steals because he likes to get out and run. Livers noted it only took two practices for Brazdeikis to pick up on the defensive rotations.
“He got swag, too. Not as much as me, but he definitely has got a lot of swag,” Poole said. “It's definitely something that we need. I feel like every team needs a freshman who can come in and make an impact on the court.
“I think he's going to step into the role that I did last year when we needed a spark or needed somebody to be aggressive and we needed somebody to be confident and make plays. I definitely think he'll be the one and he has definitely showed that early on in practice.”
Beilein also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Brazdeikis cracking the starting lineup right away — not that that’s something he would shy away from.
“Man, he loves the spotlight. And the confidence, I mean, you just have nothing to do but respect it,” Livers said. “Everything he does is just greatness.”
For those who haven't seen it yet, they will soon enough.