NEW YORK – Brandon Johns Jr. is a somewhat unlikely hero for this Michigan team.
On a team that has junior Isaiah Livers at his position, that was always going to be the case, at least until Livers graduated.
But Livers was sidelined with a hip injury at the end of December, and he re-aggravated it last week against Illinois. And so, all of a sudden, Johns was off the bench and in the starting lineup every game, and with that, responsible for putting up numbers comparable to Livers’ 13-plus points and four rebounds per game.
It was a bit of an adjustment, to say the least.
But a month into Johns’ time with the starters, it’s becoming clear that the sophomore forward is more than up to the task. Johns put up 16 points at Nebraska on Tuesday, and 20 against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday in a 69-63 win, each a new career high. It’s the first time in his career that he’s put up double digits in consecutive games.
“I can feel my confidence going up, but I also want to keep a steady head,” Johns said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But I also don’t want to go back to where I was earlier, so I think if I’m just staying nice and stable, I’ll be good from here.”
He’s creating opportunities for others, too, much in the way that Livers often did. Johns has totaled 29 rebounds over the last five games, 17 of them on defense. He has five assists over the same stretch.
Saturday’s contest against the Scarlet Knights was a case study in how far Johns has come. In addition to his 20 points – a career high – Johns had seven rebounds and threw down a dunk to the delight of the Michigan fans in the crowd. He played all but two minutes of the game.
His growth isn’t lost on his teammates, either; if anything, they’ve been witnesses as it’s come together since long before it was plastered across national television for the world to see.
“I’ve seen so much growth from him,” senior center Jon Teske said. “It’s hard work, coming into practices every day, putting forth effort. We trust him out there. Brandon knows his role. He’s coming in and he’s doing a tremendous job for us, bringing that energy, scoring, getting rebounds. But I’ve seen that every day in practice, how he brings the energy, the same energy that you guys saw today.”
Added senior point guard Zavier Simpson: “I’m just so proud of Brandon. He works hard. Every day in practice, he’s locked in. Before the game, he’s sitting down with coach Howard watching film. It’s the small things like that I feel like come into play. He’s been in the gym lately, he’s been asking question in practices, asking questions from older players, things he can improve more, and at the end of the day, just small things like that add up, and I’m so proud of Brandon. His hard work is finally paying off.”
Michigan coach Juwan Howard has preached confidence to his players all season, and Johns in particular. And now, with no clear timeline on Livers’ return – he wore a suit and tie to Saturday’s game – Michigan is enjoying the fruits of that labor when it needs it most.
“This is something that’s happened all season long,” Howard said. “Game by game – this is not just for today. Brandon’s been playing great for us all year. A lot of things that he’s been doing for this team, helping us win, things that doesn’t show up on the box score. So what happened today is he got off to a great start, finished the game with 20 points. But points is not what shows up — winning, that’s effort. It’s attention to detail.”
So, is this Brandon Johns’ renaissance? Unlikely, maybe. At least for this season.
But it’s been a long time coming.