New York — As Michigan coach Juwan Howard sat up on the dais inside Madison Square Garden and talked about Brandon Johns Jr., there was a moment where the sophomore forward had to see it to believe it.
During the middle of Howard’s answer to a question, he pointed out that Johns tallied 20 points in Saturday’s 69-63 win over No. 25 Rutgers.
A quizzical look shot over Johns’ face when he heard the number and he immediately looked down at the stat sheet in front of him. When Johns realized he posted the first 20-point game of his career, he raised his eyebrows in surprise.
But Howard, at least, thought Johns’ career outing was far from unexpected.
“Brandon has been playing great for us all year,” Howard said. “A lot of the things that he's been doing for this team to help us win is things that doesn't really show up in the box score.
“So what happened (Saturday) is, he got off to a great start. Finished the game with 20 points, but the points is not what shows up with winning. It’s effort, it’s attention to detail, being there defensively, being able to guard one through four, being a rim protector at the basket."
What else doesn’t show up in the box score? All the bumps and bruises that have become a regular thing for Johns, including the purple welt that was forming under his right eye.
According to Johns, he took a shot to the face late in the first half during a frenzied sequence where Rutgers put up three shots at the rim in rapid succession and tipped the ball multiple times before Michigan (13-8, 4-6 Big Ten) could secure the rebound.
"I guess it's just a given for me now,” Johns said. “But I'll take it. I'll give everything I have to help the team win.”
On Saturday, Johns gave the Wolverines scoring, outside shooting (4-for-7 on 3-pointers), rebounding (seven boards) and defense (two steals, one block) in a stellar performance that they needed against the Scarlet Knights.
While filling in for the injured Isaiah Livers again, Johns nearly tied his career high with 15 points in the first half alone. He drained his first two 3-point shots from the corners. He finished strong at the basket. He even muscled his way past several Rutgers defenders and tipped in a missed free-throw attempt before the halftime buzzer.
Then after Rutgers took a one-point lead in the second half, Johns keyed a 9-0 run that gave Michigan the lead for good with a two-hand jam and another 3-pointer. He finished 7-for-13 from the field, made five trips to the free-throw line and drew three fouls.
“I’ve seen so much growth with him and that starts with his hard work and practicing every day, just putting forth effort,” senior center Jon Teske said. “And we trust him to go out there and do this. And unfortunately, Isaiah’s hurt, but Brandon knows his role. He’s coming in and doing a tremendous job for us bringing a lot of energy, scoring, getting rebounds. I see that every day in practice and he brings the same energy that we saw (Saturday).”
Perhaps the most important thing the Wolverines saw from Johns was consistency. As a former top-100 recruit, the potential and tools have always been there for the 6-foot-8 East Lansing High product. It has just come in spurts.
He showed flashes last season while he played sparingly and out of position at the backup five. He provided a few more glimpses of his abilities throughout this season at the four, where he has taken on a larger role over the past month with Livers sidelined.
But for the first time in his career, Johns has strung together back-to-back double-digit scoring performances and appears to have found his footing.
He was assertive and efficient in Tuesday’s win at Nebraska, notching 16 points on six field-goal attempts while working primarily in the post. He also knocked down a critical 3-pointer in the second half to help set a career mark for scoring — one he would top four days later.
Against Rutgers, Johns played with a similar level of decisiveness. He didn’t hesitate on catch-and-shoot 3-point opportunities like he did when he first moved into the starting lineup, even though he entered the contest shooting 28.6 percent (8-for-28) from beyond the arc.
When Johns had an open look, he rose up and pulled the trigger. The result? A career-high four made 3s that helped space the floor and stretch out the Scarlet Knights' defense.
"I do feel the confidence going up, but I also want to keep a steady head,” Johns said. “I don't want to get too ahead myself and go back to where I was earlier. I think just staying mentally stable will be good for me.”
Not to mention good for the Wolverines because it's a version of Johns that Michigan has been waiting for — and one Johns has been constantly working toward.
“He's a guy who has been through a lot since his freshman season, coming into a season with a new coach, new offense, a lot of different things,” senior guard Zavier Simpson said. “But he managed to keep his head up. He worked every single day in practice. He gives it his all, he's locked in. Before the game, he's sitting down with Coach Howard watching film.
“He's been in the gym lately, he's been asking questions in practices, asking questions for players of things he can improve on. And at the end of the day, small things like that add up. His hard work is finally paying off.”