Ann Arbor — Baby step after baby step.
That’s how Michigan forward Brandon Johns Jr. described how he was progressing and acclimating to the college game during Big Ten play last season.
With a year of learning experience under his belt, the Wolverines are hoping the slow and steady process will add up to a giant leap in Johns’ sophomore year.
“He's going to have to take some steps forward,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said last week. “Fortunately for him, I think there will be some new opportunities for him to put himself out there, to perform.
“We're confident that he's going to be a guy that we can lean on certainly more than we did last year as a freshman.”
Johns, a top-70 recruit, is the top returner from Michigan’s five-man 2018 recruiting class that featured four four-star prospects — forward Ignas Brazdeikis, guard David DeJulius, center Colin Castleton and Johns — and ranked No. 11 in the nation. Yet, only Brazdeikis, who left for the NBA, emerged as a full-time contributor while Johns played a minimal role.
With Isaiah Livers and Brazdeikis dominating the playing time at the four position, Johns’ path to the floor came as a backup center, where the 6-foot-8 East Lansing native went up against players who were bigger, stronger and older all while “learning how to exist at this level” former coach John Beilein remarked last season.
Johns couldn’t lock down the reserve center job and it was divvied up based on matchups, with big man Austin Davis, Castleton and Livers all seeing time at the five. By the end of the season, Johns only logged 22 points, 29 rebounds and 115 minutes in 28 games — top marks among Michigan’s four returning sophomores.
According to Washington, Johns stayed on campus all summer and “worked his butt off in the weight room” with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson. And it shows, on Instagram where Johns posted a picture a couple weeks ago of him looking jacked and on the team’s updated roster where Johns is listed at 235 pounds, which is up 10 pounds from a year ago.
"That’s the first good sign because a lot of your major jumps are going to come between your freshman and sophomore year,” Washington said. “In the more recent weeks we've been able to get our hands on them on the court from a coaching perspective so that's been good to see the (sophomores') development and I think more than anything their confidence because nothing is new to them anymore.
“They can play and flow out of instinct and less out of, 'All right, what's coming next?' Even with the change in leadership, I think all four of those young guys have responded and had a pretty productive summer."
Not to mention Johns will also be starting his second season in Ann Arbor with a fresh slate under first-year coach Juwan Howard.
And so far, Johns already seems to be making a strong impression during the team’s skill development workouts.
“Brandon is a talent,” Howard said last week. “Now it’s my job to help Brandon trust Brandon being able to have confidence and trust himself. He’s skilled, has pretty stroke on his jump shot. He's athletic, nice kid. I have to help him add some more grit to him. He’s passionate, I love his passion.”
Washington said Johns needs to add “more gusto” and likened his maturation process to that of former Wolverine forward D.J. Wilson, who spent three years at Michigan before becoming a first-round NBA Draft pick.
Wilson saw limited minutes his first two years — his freshman season was cut short due to a knee injury — as a backup center before he moved to his natural position at the four and became a full-time starter as a junior.
Johns noted last season he looks up to Wilson and hopes to follow a similar path. With senior center Jon Teske being backed up by Davis and Castleton and Brazdeikis gone, Johns will have a shot to retrace Wilson's footsteps by shifting out to the perimeter and earning significant minutes.
And depending on the type of lineup Howard wants to deploy, it’s possible Johns could start at the four between Teske at the five and Livers at the three, or serve a sixth-man role like Livers did last season.
“I think going into this year, not that he has to have a D.J. Wilson type of year, but he needs to be trending in that direction,” Washington said. “I think for Brandon it's just him understanding that he doesn't have to live up to any expectations. He just has to be the best version of him.”
With a need for dependable contributors and a clearer path to make an impact, the opportunity is there for the taking for Johns, who could play a much larger role in determining Michigan's ceiling.
"Guys like him and Dave and Adrien (Nunez) and Colin," Washington said, "a couple of those guys are going to have to take some steps forward in order for us to be good this year."