Confidence helps Michigan's Brandon Johns grow his game

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

The average Michigan fan might not notice much of a difference with Brandon Johns Jr.

The junior forward still does a lot of typical Johns things. He crashes the glass. He creates extra possessions. He bangs in the paint. He knocks down outside shots. He brings a limitless amount of energy.

But the biggest change is something one can’t see: Johns’ confidence.

Through 14 games, Brandon Johns Jr. (23) is averaging 4.6 points and 2.5 rebounds off the bench.

"My confidence level from the past two years to now is a lot better. It's all I've really been focused on,” Johns said last week. “I try to just play my game, not think too much, not overthink. My confidence level is a lot better this year.

“I don't think there's been a game where I didn't really believe in myself. Obviously, there are some shots where I'm like, 'Oh, I wouldn't normally take that,’ because my own belief in myself from the past two years is like a habit now. I'm in the process of breaking out of those little minor habits.”

It’s a topic Johns has openly talked about since his freshman year. In the past, Johns admitted there were times he struggled with his confidence and it hampered his play on the court.

Despite the improvement in that area, assistant coach Phil Martelli said last month he felt Johns was “tensing up” and was trying to play while “holding his breath” at times, both in practice and in games.

Johns noted there have been a few instances where he has second-guessed himself, questioning whether he should take a certain shot or make a certain pass. He worried more about not making the wrong play rather than trusting himself.   

“I know the coaches believe in me and my teammates believe in me,” Johns said, “so I just need to find it in myself.

“I’m working on it on an everyday basis. I don't really know how to explain it. You have to reconstruct your mind into knowing you can do these things that you normally would say, 'Oh, I can't do this.' It's just taking that ‘can't’ word out and knowing you can do something.”

The Wolverines know full well the type of imprint Johns can make with his versatility, size and skill set. If he’s needed to stretch the floor and play out on the perimeter, he can do it. If he’s needed to draw fouls and get physical in the paint, he can do it.

That has shown over the past two games, where Johns has made his mark in different ways. In last week’s win over Maryland, he packed an offensive punch with a season-high 11 points in 13 minutes. Then in the victory at Purdue, he rose to the defensive challenge late in the first half when freshman center Hunter Dickinson and fifth-year senior center Austin Davis both were in foul trouble.

“Brandon Johns is a beast,” grad transfer guard Mike Smith said after the Maryland win. “He's strong, he's a big body, he can shoot the 3. …He gives us a different look at the four or the five and he can guard and he's really athletic. When he plays like that, it's hard to beat us because that gives us somebody else off the bench with Chaundee (Brown) to make an impact.”

For the season, Johns is averaging 4.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 11.6 minutes as a main piece of the rotation. While those stats are down from last season — when Johns played more and made 11 starts in place of an injured Isaiah Livers — his shooting numbers are up across the board: 64.9% from the field, 65.5% on 2-pointers, 62.5% on 3-pointers and 80% on free throws.

Livers attributed those percentages to Johns’ growing understanding of the game and to the better job he’s done at staying engaged.

“Brandon's thing early on was he just wasn't ready and locked in,” Livers said. “When his name was called, he just wasn't ready. Now he's anticipating his name being called and coming and getting me as my first sub. You can see it in his eyes. I love it. That's definitely the thing I've seen that changed from his freshman year is he's locked in and ready to go.”

Not to mention that Johns feels more comfortable playing either the four or five — “I enjoy both positions equally,” he said — and has a better feel for coach Juwan Howard’s offensive and defensive expectations in Year 2. Though there were some new ball screen coverages at the five that took some time for Johns to get used to.

Johns said he’s been playing “decent” so far this season and feels he can do better. Whether he’s needed to step in or step up, the next step is getting his consistency to match his confidence as he continues to embrace whatever role is required.

“Brandon has been all in from Day 1 for this team since the time I became head coach,” Howard said. “When Isaiah went out with his injury (last season), Brandon was a starter. When Isaiah came back from his injury, Brandon was a guy that came in and gave us minutes and has always been pure about it.

“He's an all-team type of guy. He's done an amazing job on the offensive and defensive end. He's a big reason why we're (in first) in the Big Ten.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins