Michigan coach talks about Saturday's home game against Wisconsin and how the Badgers are a "tough matchup" for the Wolverines. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Little by little, freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. continues to head in the right direction for the Wolverines.
It’s just happening at a painstaking pace he didn’t quite expect.
“It's coming along, but to me, for some reason it's coming along a little bit slower than what I wanted it to,” Johns said Friday. “Obviously it's different for every person, but it's starting to come along a little bit better. I'm starting to understand a lot more and it's literally been baby steps."
Those steps haven’t been enough for Johns to carve out a consistent role and become a solution to one of Michigan’s most glaring problems: its lack of depth.
The Wolverines have predominately leaned on a seven-man rotation with only six players — all five starters and sixth man Isaiah Livers — receiving a consistently healthy helping of minutes.
Johns has appeared in 17 of Michigan’s 23 games and has played 10 minutes or more three times. However, he's only averaging 1.1 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.5 minutes and has scored in only five contests.
And Johns hasn’t been able pull away from redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis and take control of the backup center spot behind starter Jon Teske, a role that has been divvied up based on matchups.
“Brandon is making all these baby steps every single day,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “But this is a big man's league. He's 19 years old and a lot of the big men that he's playing against are older, more experienced, stronger than he is. He's just sort of learning how to exist at this level, but he's still getting better.
“Every day we're seeing great strides, but he's still not the best option for us to be the guy that goes in (at the five) and we don't have an option right now. We're sort of flying by the seat of our pants based on what happens in the two days of practice.”
Johns flashed his potential in a breakout performance against Indiana on Jan. 6 when he recorded eight points and eight rebounds in 13 minutes.
However, he hasn’t been able to build off that outing and hasn’t come close to duplicating those numbers over the last month.
After the Hoosiers game, Johns received DNPs (did not play) in two of the next three contests and has seen more than five minutes of playing time just twice, most recently at Iowa last week. With Teske and Livers both in early foul trouble against the Hawkeyes, Johns saw extended action but couldn’t take advantage of the 10-minute opportunity as he was repeatedly attacked on defense.
Johns admits he hasn’t acclimated to the college game as quickly as he hoped and takes responsibility for the incremental progress he’s made so far.
"In high school I think I worked hard, but I don't think I worked as hard as I wanted to,” he said. “I didn't learn as much as I needed to be prepared for these moments."
Johns isn’t the first and won’t be the last big man to struggle during his freshman season after making the jump from high school. Teske went through a similar phase, as did former Wolverines Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson before him.
Johns said he looks up to Wilson and hopes to follow a similar path like the first-round NBA draft pick, who went from a backup his first two seasons to a full-time starter his third year to the No. 17 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
“I'm in the same spot he was. He didn't really play that much but then as he got through the years he really developed and became a wonderful player,” Johns said. “I think that's what I'm trying to take after right now and follow in his footsteps a little bit.”
Of course, the sooner Johns’ develops, the better for the Wolverines.
But as the slow and steady process unfolds, Johns is focused on staying positive, playing with a high motor and being a good teammate.
“He's a great kid. He's trying really hard and we're working with him,” Beilein said. “Hopefully he'll continue to progress and then one day it will all start to really come together.”
Wisconsin at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 7 Michigan 21-2, 10-2 Big Ten; No. 19 Wisconsin 17-6, 9-3
Outlook: Ethan Happ leads Wisconsin in scoring (18.3 points), rebounding (10.4) and assists (5.1) and is shooting 55.2 percent from the field. … The Badgers are 5-1 in Big Ten road games and rank third nationally in fewest turnovers per game (9.3). … Michigan has won 20 straight at Crisler Center but has only won three of the last 10 meetings between the teams in Ann Arbor.