Ann Arbor — Michigan’s Brandon Johns Jr., Colin Castleton, David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez took their lumps as freshmen.
The quartet scratched and clawed for scraps of playing time, but none could crack a consistent role in the rotation on last season’s 30-win team.
But if the Wolverines are going to build upon the program’s recent stretch of success, they’re going to need all four of them to make a much-needed jump in Year 2.
“All of our returning sophomores have had a productive summer,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said last week at the team’s media day. “It's always tough for an incoming freshman when you're the man at your school and you've always played and then you come into a situation in the first year where it's challenging. It's nothing more than it's just a new level.
“We had a really good team last year, so we didn't have to slow down and wait for those guys to develop. In a lot of ways, (they’re) still freshmen from a playing experience because they didn't get a lot of court time in games. But with that being said I think they took full advantage of the summer and so far this preseason in preparations to try to take that next step."
As a collective group, Johns, Castleton, DeJulius and Nunez totaled 60 points, 67 rebounds, eight steals, seven assists and seven blocks to go along with 16 turnovers in 318 minutes last season. On a per game basis, the foursome averaged 2.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 13.4 minutes.
Johns saw the most playing time of the bunch, tallying 22 points and 29 rebounds in 117 minutes over 28 games. All those marks ranked the highest among the second-year players, who went a combined 25-for-83 from the field and saw only Johns (four times) and DeJulius (once) receive at least 10 minutes of action in a game.
With the departures of Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews — who all averaged at least 29.7 minutes and 12.2 points per game — coupled with a new head coach in Juwan Howard and wrist injury to freshman wing Franz Wagner, roles are up for grabs and opportunities are there for the taking.
That’s why Johns, Castleton, DeJulius and Nunez all stayed on campus during the spring and summer semesters to work on their bodies and game. They put in countless hours with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson and took the lessons they learned last year to heart when hitting the court.
"We've all grown tremendously,” Johns said. “We all grinded (in the offseason). It's amazing to see all the results from all of that.
"We know that we're going to be a factor on this team. We just need to be able to be confident in ourselves and know that we can do this together."
When it comes to the biggest area of growth compared to last season, each sophomore points to a different aspect.
For Johns, it was the mental side of the game and learning to believe in himself at all times, something he said he has struggled with throughout his life even though it might not have shown. He added he became more comfortable with himself this year and sought help from one of the team’s psychologists to “get my mind right.”
“I think my confidence last year was really low and it's been a problem with me since I started playing basketball actually,” Johns said. “I feel like it's finally starting to get a little bit higher.
“I think I really need to be more confident in myself and just have the confidence out on the floor because I feel like I can be such a better player.”
Johns, a 6-foot-8 forward, spent most of his time last season as a backup five out of necessity. This season he’ll shift back out on the perimeter to his natural position at the four, a move Washington noted should “help his confidence.”
For Castleton, it was putting more weight and muscle onto his 6-11 frame. He played at 225 pounds last year and is up 10 pounds to 235, which is around where the coaching staff wants him to play at this year.
Castleton said his body “feels better than it ever has" and the weight gain has helped him build a stronger base, move his feet quicker, become more athletic and play more above the rim.
"I feel like the strength that I've put on helps me be versatile on the defensive end, being able to guard multiple positions,” Castleton said. “On offense I’d get bumped one time and fall over or ask why I didn't get a foul call when it wasn't a foul because I just wasn't as strong down low.”
Senior center Jon Teske can attest to Castleton’s improved strength down in the post.
“Last year when he first came in, me being the bigger guy I could move him around a little bit,” Teske said. “But now I struggle with that sometimes. He knows how to use his body now and that's one thing that freshmen don't really know how to do.”
Castleton added he’s running the floor better and has continued to expand his offensive repertoire, another area of improvement Teske has noticed.
“He really worked on his shot off the dribble, two dribbles in, back to the basket, he's working on everything,” Teske said. “He can be that energy guy, defensively blocking shots, rebounding, helping us do the dirty little things that we need to have guys do to win games."
For DeJulius and Nunez, the two guards who combined to shoot 2-for-28 from 3-point range last year, the focus was on different ends of the floor.
DeJulius spent his time in the gym working on his jump shot, his decision-making and his ability to make plays for himself and others.
“That was an emphasis going into this offseason, just making sure I'm confident in my stroke because we're going to need it because we lost some really great players last year,” DeJulius said. “There’s some scoring and plays that need to be made up for."
DeJulius said it has been “refreshing” knowing that his teammates and coaches are expecting him to produce this season, and assistant coach Howard Eisley said Howard’s system will help DeJulius “open his game up and give him freedom.”
“He's very good with the basketball. To have the opportunity to play more downhill, I think has been beneficial to him,” Eisley said. “To have him play in space will help him tremendously. Being able to play and not play more thinking and just play freely, that's one thing that was hindering him a little bit last year.”
Nunez, who saw the least amount of playing time of the returning sophomores, said his greatest strides have come on the defensive end.
“That's been a big priority that Coach Juwan, Saddi, (associate head coach) Phil (Martelli), Eisley have been preaching to me about,” said Nunez, whose vertical jump has increased by over three inches. “They're not worried a lot on the offensive end. They want me to lock down defensively right now, so that's the biggest thing I've been focusing on.”
Howard called Nunez one of the best shooters on the team and said his numbers have proven it in practice, which is something Castleton was also quick to point out.
“He's got probably the best stroke I've ever seen in my basketball career,” Castleton said. “So him being able to be consistent with shooting the ball well and not worrying about if he misses a shot to get to his defense (will be key).”
Junior guard Eli Brooks, who also stayed on campus in the summer, witnessed firsthand all the work the sophomores have put in and how it is starting to show in practice.
“Colin brings more energy. I think that's something he lacked his freshman year, but I think that also just comes with confidence, being familiar with stuff. He's talking more and he's more active because he can do a lot of things really well,” Brooks said. “With Brandon, the game is slowing down. He's finding out who he is as a player and finally has an identity.
“Adrien, we just tell him to stick to his strengths and he shoots the ball really well. He was turning down shots, but you can see him being more confident and taking shots. And Dave is being a leader. I know it's tough being a freshman and being asked to be a leader, but all our life point guards are asked to lead the team. I think he's done a good job controlling the offense, controlling the defense and that's helped Dave grow."
The next step is putting that growth on display for all to see when the regular season starts on Nov. 5.
“We were in the gym almost every day in the summer just having that chip on our shoulder,” Castleton said. “I feel like there's a good opportunity for all of us this year and when we have the opportunity to show what we've worked on, we'll be able to produce.”