DES MOINES, Iowa — Ignas Brazdeikis gave a smile, then a knowing laugh.
“I love it,” he said. “You know what I mean?”
The freshman forward just sat down at his locker after getting back from a session at the podium — something that will become commonplace for him if Michigan makes an NCAA Tournament run. Away from the microphone, the first question posed to him was about his status as a villain, and Brazdeikis’ answer kept entirely with his front-facing personality.
For Brazdeikis, everything flows from confidence. For the rest of the country, that’s a euphemism for arrogance. He’s that guy — the one who gets chants and boos at opposing arenas, then smiles, hits a shot and blows a kiss. Starting with tomorrow’s game against Montana, Brazdeikis will be a focus for each of Michigan’s NCAA Tournament opponents, in more ways than one. Being a villain isn’t necessarily the intention, he says, but, “I knew I was kinda the guy that could get under people’s skin.”
Brazdeikis attracts attention for his words as much as his play, which says something because his play attracts a whole lot of attention. As a freshman, he’s the leading scorer on a top-10 team, shooting an even 42 percent from 3-point range, drawing fouls at a high rate and playing defense at a higher level than most expected. Strength coach Jon Sanderson compares him to Glenn Robinson in terms of physical ability.
Brazdeikis won’t tell you all that. He’ll just smile and hyperbolize. The first time we spoke, back in June, I asked how he might tell someone to guard him.
“I would say try your best,” he said, “but you probably won’t even have a chance.”
On Wednesday, nine months later with a full season under his belt, he mentions the Joker and Conor McGregor, both in a positive light. Later, he says that, at least in his mind, he’s made every 3-pointer he’s ever taken. He believes it. He’s also in on the joke.
“I don’t go around the bush,” Brazdeikis said. “I guess teams aren’t used to hearing that. A lot of guys don’t say what they think. I’m the type of person to say what’s on my mind.”
He has become caricatured — and it’s a description he’ll lean into — on the court and in front of the cameras. That’s a part of the package. That’s why the cameras flock.
For other players with other levels of skill, or less self-awareness, it might rub John Beilein the wrong way. It might rub teammates the wrong way. Not Brazdeikis, and in March, that will matter more than ever.
“I think Iggy’s game is just so good that you gotta just kind of accept it, I guess,” said freshman guard David DeJulius. “But the way — I think Iggy is confident. It’s not arrogant or anything of that nature. So, that’s another reason why you gotta accept it, cause it’s what makes him who he is. Without that, Iggy won’t be who he is.”
In this locker room, the Wolverines paint a picture of Brazdeikis as someone who toes the line between confidence and arrogance with precision. Coaches mention his IQ for the game, his natural ability. Teammates say he backs up the talk — they’re not wrong.
A common theme emerges here. Where detractors might see bucking tradition in favor of self-interest, everyone inside these walls sees Brazdeikis as doing everything right.
“Every day he grew. And he always asked great questions,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “And he really also had the mindset that he always wanted to be, throughout the recruiting process, and ended up being an elite two-way player. And there was a little chip on his shoulder that people said he doesn’t want to guard. And he proved this year that he is a more than capable defender and has had a really, really productive freshman year.”
After being asked about the competition for the starting power forward spot at the beginning of the year, a competition Brazdeikis won, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers tossed out a word nobody outside the Michigan locker room would associate with Brazdeikis.
“He’s a humble —” Livers said, then he caught himself. “He’s not a humble (guy). Everybody’s not gonna think he’s a humble guy. He’s humble when it comes to stuff like that.
“… You’re not gonna see that on the court. On the court, of course he’s gonna be flashy, confident — not gonna use the word cocky. I love cocky players, love the way he plays. But he’s more super-confident in his game. I love that.”
So do the rest of the Wolverines.