When East Lansing native Brandon Johns Jr. committed to Michigan in June of 2017, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo spiraled into hysterics.
“He went on a whole rant,” Johns later told the Lansing State Journal, recounting the phone call in which he informed Izzo of his college decision. “That was not what I expected. It wasn’t easy.”
When Johns spurned the Spartans for Ann Arbor, Izzo had reason to believe that he missed out on the next big thing. Standing at 6-foot-8 and oozing athleticism, Johns dominated the high school circuit, finishing as the runner-up for Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2018. A consensus top-100 recruit, his potential seemed limitless.
To date, though, his career hasn’t quite played out that way. Johns struggled to establish himself across his first two seasons, with his production frustratingly inconsistent.
At times, Johns showed flashes of the player whose commitment to Michigan sent Izzo into a tizzy. As a freshman, Johns burst onto the scene with an eight-point, eight-rebound performance against Indiana. As a sophomore, he was entrusted with late second-half minutes in a top-10 battle against Oregon and shined with a career-high 20 points against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.
Each game, Johns’s breakout performances prompted the same question: Has he turned the corner? And each time, the ensuing games revealed that he had not.
In Tuesday’s win over Maryland, Johns again showcased his potential. He tallied a season-high 11 points and four rebounds across 13 minutes, shooting 4-of-6 from the field. Mental lapses — so often the defining characteristic of Johns’s play — were absent.
“Brandon’s thing early on was that he wasn’t locked in,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “His name was called, he just wasn’t ready. Now, he’s anticipating his name called and coming to get me as my first sub. You can see it in his eyes. I just love it. That’s the thing I’ve seen from his freshman year. He’s locked in and ready to go.”
Skill has never been the issue for Johns. The key to unlocking his potential resided on the mental front. Speaking to reporters in December, associate coach Phil Martelli said that Johns “has to breathe” and “loosen up.”
Johns attributes Tuesday’s performance to a refined mentality, noting that his confidence level is higher than it has been in prior seasons.
“Every game, I don’t think there’s been a game, really, where I didn’t believe in myself,” Johns said. “There’s some shots where I went, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t normally take that because of my own belief in myself from the past two years.’ It’s a habit now. I’m in the process of breaking out of those little minor habits. Overall, I think I’ve had confidence these past 13 games.”
His production validates that conviction. Though he averages 11.5 minutes per game — eight less than last year’s total — he has become far more efficient, shooting a career-high 66% from the field and making 5-of-8 3-pointers. His actions look decisive because he’s not allowing his brain to get in the way and slow him down.
“I would get into thinking too much because I didn’t want to make the wrong play instead of just playing,” Johns said. “I’m trusting myself. … You’ve got to reconstruct your mind into knowing you can do these things that you normally would say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ It’s kind of just taking that ‘can’t’ word out, knowing that you can do something.”
Last season, Johns vacillated between the starting lineup and the bench, his role largely contingent on Livers’s health. This year, his role is more defined, serving as both a backup ‘4’ and a small-ball ‘5,’ providing a more versatile alternative to freshman center Hunter Dickinson or senior center Austin Davis.
When asked which position he prefers, Johns equivocates. Playing the ‘5,’ though, undoubtedly required a learning curve, one that he is just now starting to grasp.
“Learning some new concepts this year,” Johns said. “Just being on time with your calls and everything with the guards and stuff on the balls screens, when it’s time to switch, simple stuff like that. It was more difficult at first but we got the hang of it.”
Against Maryland, Johns spent time flanking Davis as a ‘4’ and in the middle as the ‘5,’ matching up against the Terrapins’ undersized lineup. In both roles, he looked comfortable. Should Johns be able to build upon Tuesday’s outing, he adds another dimension to an already-potent Michigan offense, bolstering a frontcourt that lacks depth outside of Dickinson and Davis.
“When he plays like that, it’s hard to beat us for sure,” graduate transfer guard Mike Smith said of Johns. “That gives us somebody else off the bench with (senior guard) Chaundee (Brown) to make an impact.”
Michigan can only hope that Johns parlays his recent performance into the sustained success that has long eluded him. And with a newfound confidence, there’s every reason to believe he will.
“I feel like it’s been a pretty good year so far,” Johns said. “Only going up, you know?”
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