'Energy giver' Brandon Johns Jr. invigorates Wolverines in Big Ten opener
Ann Arbor — With 2:47 remaining in Friday’s Big Ten opener, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. checked out for the final time and started making his way off the court to a loud applause.
It was the end of a breakout performance for Johns and his best outing in a Michigan uniform. He tallied a career-high 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting, marking the first time he reached double figures in scoring. He tied his career high with 19 minutes played. He tied another career high with eight rebounds, with five coming on the offensive end.
So as Johns headed the bench in the closing minutes of the 103-91 win over Iowa, coach Juwan Howard intercepted him and offered some complimentary words.
"I basically thanked him for his effort and let him know it was very inspiring to see how well he competed and how he helped us with giving us that energy that we needed when some of our guys went out with foul trouble,” Howard said. “We had Franz (Wagner), Isaiah (Livers), they played a lot of minutes. I need a guy — and have a guy in Brandon and many others — who can give our guys a break and breather here and there.”
Johns did more than simply bridge the gap for a couple minutes against the Hawkeyes. He helped widened it as he showed all the potential and tools that made him a top-70 recruit coming out of East Lansing High.
When Johns checked in with 11:33 left in the first half, he soared for an offensive rebound on the first offensive possession and found redshirt junior center Austin Davis for a second-chance basket.
He battled against Iowa’s big men for defensive rebounds. He made a baseline cut for a wide-open dunk. He even countered Luka Garza’s scoring spree with one of his own, scoring eight straight points for Michigan and swishing two 3-pointers — after entering the game with only one made deep ball in 36 career games.
By the time Johns’ nine-minute stint ended, his efforts helped Michigan turn a two-point game into a seven-point lead late in the first half.
But Johns didn't stop there. In the second half, he dove on the hardwood for a loose ball and forced a jump ball. He made another backdoor cut for another dunk. He skied for four more offensive boards, including two on one possession that ended with another bucket by Davis.
"He was tremendous. He played with great energy. He impacted the game every time he came in,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He's a really good player. I saw him in high school. I know what he's capable of doing. I'm not surprised.”
Neither were Johns’ teammates. Davis called Johns “a big energy giver” whose hustle plays have led to numerous extra possessions this season. Wagner noted Johns is just one of the many players on the team who can step up right away, before adding he had never seen Johns jump so high for some of his offensive rebounds that led to six of Michigan’s 13 second-chance points.
On a night where Michigan’s depth shined, Johns was arguably the bright spot.
“It was great to see Brandon Johns come in there and give us a huge lift,” Howard said. “Super active around the offensive glass. Cutting to the basket for layups and dunks. Being very active on the defensive and then also making outside shots. He played with a ton of confidence.”
That last part, though, is the most important for Johns. As a freshman who played sparingly and out of position as a backup center out of necessity, he struggled to believe in himself and his abilities. And that seeped into his performance.
As a result, Johns spent this past offseason working on the mental side of the game and reconstructing his mind with one of the team’s psychologists.
“I think I was in my head more last year and still trying to pick up the system and everything,” Johns said. “I think this year everything is starting to slow down for me a little bit and I'm starting to understand different aspects and concepts of the game. It's a lot more fun when you're starting to understand things.”
Johns also understands that if he constantly brings energy-filled minutes, good things will happen. He bought into the mentality that if he hustles, defends and rebounds, the points will follow.
“I feel the more you're (bringing it) on defense, the more it'll come on offense,” Johns said. “Once one starts rolling, the other one will start rolling for sure.”
Johns showed it on Friday night. The next step will be to show it again — something he failed to do last season following his breakthrough outing against Indiana when he flashed similar promise.
Yet, Howard is confident this won't be another flash-in-the-pan moment and that there is more in store for Johns.
“He knows that I have his best interests at heart," Howard said. "I'm going to continuously keep teaching him and helping him get better and better each day because he wants it.
“We're going to have many more nights like that with him."