Michigan ready to 'lean on' Brandon Johns Jr. from the get-go

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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There’s no doubt junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. has the skills and capabilities to play a crucial role.

With his athleticism, he can defend on the perimeter and in the paint. With his 3-point shooting, he can stretch the floor and opposing defenses. And he has a growing back-to-the-basket game that Michigan coach Juwan Howard has worked with him to develop.

“We’re going to need his contribution on both sides of the floor, on offense and defense,” Howard said ahead of Wednesday’s season opener against Bowling Green at Crisler Center.

“We’re going to lean on him a lot. We’re going to need his production.”

Michigan's Brandon Johns Jr. (23) will see time at center in smaller lineups this season.

The only question is what position that production will come at. Johns saw the majority of his playing time at forward last season and made 11 starts as Isaiah Livers dealt with an array of groin, hip and ankle injuries.

But with a healthy Livers back for his senior season, he’ll soak up most of the minutes at the four. The same thing will happen at the three with sophomore wing Franz Wagner.

Johns also made brief appearances at the five, the same spot he served a reserve role his freshman year under former coach John Beilein. With fifth-year senior Austin Davis and freshman Hunter Dickinson as the only big men on the roster, it’s possible Johns could be deployed as a small-ball center.

It’s a lineup option assistant coach Phil Martelli mentioned twice last week and a role Howard confirmed Johns has been getting a look at in practice.

"Brandon is still growing,” Howard said. “He's very versatile so it's great to be able to utilize him at the four and the five spots. He is going to be a guy that we can lean on at that (center) position depending on the depth chart.”  

Subscription: Wings Isaiah Livers, Franz Wagner pivotal for Michigan to take flight

Howard noted the success NBA teams have had with small-ball lineups, most notably the “Death Lineup” the Golden State Warriors used during a dominant stretch where they won three championships in four years. Instead of a traditional center, former Michigan State standout Draymond Green and his 6-foot-6 frame caused headaches for opponents as he manned the middle for Golden State.

In short, going small paid off big for the Warriors. It’s a trend that has only continued to grow and a formula teams have turned to more often as the NBA has shifted toward positionless basketball.

“Yes, Austin and Hunter are the first two guys that we give the nod to at that (center) position, but the game has evolved a lot where you see teams at times play a five that's 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-6,” Howard said. “Give credit to Golden State Warriors. They helped change the game a lot. Draymond has perfected that position very well."

Arguably the biggest key to the Warriors’ small-ball success was Green’s defensive versatility and ability to seamlessly guard all five positions. Howard believes Johns is capable of guarding every position except point guard.

Even though Johns’ natural position is at the four, Martelli said the coaching staff has been working hard to get him to see himself as a versatile piece who can fulfill multiple roles and play beside — not just behind — Livers.

“Brandon Johns, to me, I really do believe he could be a real X-factor,” Martelli said. “He has these spurts, like three baskets in four plays. He’s the best offensive rebounder in the group. I would say his comfort and his IQ is much higher than what it was at this time last year.

“I don’t think he thought he could get it last year and he sometimes didn’t give himself that chance. There’s more brightness than there is dimness now in regard to what Brandon can do.”

Johns averaged six points and 3.9 rebounds in 19.5 minutes while shooting 60.3% on 2-pointers and 34.5% on 3-pointers last season. He ranked second on the team in blocks (21) and fourth in rebounds (118).

Martelli noted Johns “saved us any number of times” while filling in for Livers last year, highlighted by the two-game stretch where he tallied 16 points in a win at Nebraska — a game the Wolverines were also without Zavier Simpson, who was serving a one-game suspension — and posted a career-high 20 points with four made 3-pointers in a win against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.

While it’s unclear where most of Johns' minutes will come at it this season, it’s clear the Wolverines will be counting on him in more than one way.

“Brandon Johns is going to play because of his skill and he's a matchup problem,” Martelli said. “What has to happen for Brandon is consistency and older. He's got to think older, he's got to play older. When you talk about athletic abilities and that whole matchup idea, he has that spark. We have to keep that spark lit for every day and every challenge that we will face.”

Bowling Green at Michigan

Tip-off: 4 p.m. Wednesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: ESPN2/950

Outlook: This is the first meeting between the teams since 2010 and the first of six consecutive home games to open the season for Michigan…Bowling Green was picked to win the Mid-American Conference regular-season and tournament titles in the league’s preseason coaches poll. The Falcons are led by fifth-year guard and Detroit native Justin Turner, who was a preseason MAC first-team selection.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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