Niyo: Michigan freshman Brandon Johns seizes opportunity and runs with it

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — He was ready when they called his name on the bench this time, and it showed.

But back inside the Michigan locker room, after the No. 2-ranked Wolverines (15-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) kept their unbeaten streak alive with a 74-63 win over Indiana at Crisler Center, Brandon Johns admits he wasn’t quite ready for what came next.

Prior to Sunday, the highly touted freshman from East Lansing had only made cameo appearances in games for Michigan this season. But with starting power forward Isaiah Livers sidelined again by a back injury, and center Jon Teske and his backup, Austin Davis, both saddled with foul trouble, Johns had a breakout performance, finishing with eight points and eight rebounds in only 13 minutes on the floor against the Hoosiers.

Yet when it was time for the postgame breakdown in the locker room, Johns was a bit taken aback when the team turned to him to lead them in singing “The Victors.”

That was different,” he said, laughing. “But it was great. I loved it.”

The nerves he says he felt then were a little different, though, than the ones he felt midway through the first half, when head coach John Beilein turned and motioned for him to check in.

Michigan was up big early, leading 30-13 as co-captain Charles Matthews set the early tone Sunday, harassing Indiana’s star freshman, Romeo Langford, right from the opening tip. But Beilein had just watched Davis pick up his second foul almost immediately after inserting him back in the game, so suddenly it was Johns’ turn. And this was something new, all right.

More:Charles Matthews blankets Indiana freshman Romeo Langford in Michigan victory

A consensus top-100 recruit nationally and runner-up in Michigan’s Mr. Basketball voting last spring, Johns had played a total of 36 minutes in 10 games thus far this season. He’d scored in just two of those games, going 2-for-2 against George Washington back in mid-November and then knocking down a pair of free throws at the end of a blowout win over Purdue in the Big Ten opener a month ago.

The expected playing time during a stretch of nonconference mismatches in December never really materialized, either, and while others may not understand that, Johns insists he does. It’s all part of the process.

Seeking minutes

Sure, he sees the fans tagging him on Instagram and Twitter posts demanding more playing time. (“I just kind of look at it,” he said. “I don’t really respond to it.”) But he also watches his veteran teammates step on the court and turn what feels like advanced calculus to a freshman and treat it like basic arithmetic.

“They’ll do something so naturally, because they’ve been doing it so long,” Johns said Sunday, shaking his head. “And then when I get out there, I have to actually think about it. … and when you think too much, you just mess up.”

Again, though, that’s nothing new for a freshman in Beilein’s system. Or with assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defensive gameplans. Which screens do you switch? When do you hedge, and how hard? When do you help and where? Johns has added muscle and weight, bulking up to 212 pounds to help him fight these Big Ten battles. But that's not even close to half the battle for a 19-year-old trying to find his way at this level.

“Now every game is gonna be a different scouting report,” Beilein said. “With a whole different set of rules.”

Still, the golden rule — the one Johns is just now fully understanding — is the one every freshman has to learn. Especially on a team that’s playing at the level these Wolverines are, now 29-1 over the last 11 months, with the lone loss coming to Villanova in the national championship game back in April.

“I had to come in confident and be ready, just in case he calls my name,” Johns said. “If he calls my number, I’ve got to be ready.”

Sunday, he was ready, though he admitted afterward. “I definitely was nervous” just the same.

Whether it was nervous energy or not, it worked. Johns grabbed defensive rebounds on three successive Indiana possession, then scored at the other end to give Michigan it’s largest lead of the game at 19 points.

But it was his play in the second half that really stood out, checking in with 8:02 left after Teske joined Davis on the bench with four fouls. He followed up his own miss with a put-back, then flashed in the lane off a pick-and-roll and took a pass from Zavier Simpson. He turned and cuffed a one-handed dunk to get the crowd — and the Michigan bench — on its feet. Then he came up with a clean block of the Hoosiers senior leader, Juwan Morgan, at the rim on the ensuing possession.

“Got a great opportunity and made the most of it,” Beilein said.

Not they just need to see more of it, in practice and games. Beilein said the other day in practice, the Wolverines ran a 4-on-4 full-court scrimmage with no rules and “he was a nonfactor in the game.”

Best yet to come

“Really good kid,” Beilein added. “Love him. Absolutely love him. But like many of our guys, he has another gear that we’re trying to get out of him. And we will.”

And maybe this was the next step in that process, a freshman rediscovering the confidence he carried as a prep star and finding a role for himself on the court. Beilein spoke of Sunday’s game being “a catalyst,” and he even hinted at more playing time, especially with Livers' status still up in the air for Michigan's next game at 

“We’ll see how he does in the next two days,” the coach said. “But he certainly now there’s an argument for him to be the first big man off the bench after the way he played today.”

Asked if he felt the same way, Johns smiled and shrugged.

“Hopefully,” he said. “We’ll see.”

But I think we did Sunday. Now we’ll just have to see if the freshman is ready to show us more.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo