Ignas Brazdeikis sprinted down the court, caught an outlet pass, cocked his arms back and thundered down a two-handed fast-break slam.
For Michigan men’s basketball faithful, Friday night’s exhibition against Northwood was the first chance to see the highly-anticipated freshman forward in action.
It’s safe to say they got the introduction they expected.
The No. 40 prospect in the 2018 class per 247Sports.com tore through the prep-circuit last year at Orangeville Prep in Ontario, Canada, averaging 32.8 points per game against a slew of some of the best prep teams in North America. On the Wolverines’ summer trip to Spain, he led the team in scoring with 15.7.
So when Brazdeikis garnered the starting nod at power forward over last season’s starter, Isaiah Livers, it was far from a surprise. This offseason, Michigan lost Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson — three of its top four scorers from last season’s Final Four squad. There was no secret the Wolverines needed scoring. Brazdeikis could provide it.
And provide it he did — tying for the team lead in scoring with 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting and adding three rebounds for good measure.
“To be honest, I was just so excited,” Brazdeikis said. “I just wanted to have fun out there, go as hard as I can, have fun with my teammates and just win the game. So when I’m out there, I don’t really focus on nerves or anything.”
Under coach John Beilein, Michigan’s offense has been defined by ball movement, constant motion and 3-point shooting from all five players. Brazdeikis is talented enough to fit into just about any system, but his game is first and foremost downhill; a 6-foot-7 freight train barreling towards the rim. The Wolverines haven’t had many of those players in Beilein’s tenure, and certainly none of Brazdeikis’ caliber.
That made Friday night’s 90-58 blowout all the more noteworthy. Michigan seemingly erased the 3-point shot from its repretoire in the first half, instead choosing to attack the basket and overwhelm the Timberwolves for easy inside buckets.
That style played right into Brazdeikis’ hands, and he took advantage with 11 first-half points. A minute after his dunk, Brazdeikis caught the ball at the top of the key, drove left off a screen and scored in traffic. Not too long after that, he took the ball in transition in his own half, accelerated to the hoop and put home an and-one layup.
“We definitely have a lot of hunters on the team,” Brazdeikis said. “A lot of guys who can get to the hole, make plays, attack score. And I feel like with that, there’s so much to our offense we can do — me, Charles (Matthews), Jordan (Poole), we can all attack every single possession and I feel like that’s our strength.”
Make no mistake, Brazdeikis is still a freshman, and still maturing. That much could be seen when he was a step slow guarding a pick-and-roll and was whistled for a foul, leading to a Northwood and-one. He also took two charging fouls, registered zero assists and only played 20 minutes overall due to foul trouble.
But those are mistakes that, in part, come with the territory. They’re a reminder that as Brazdeikis continues to adapt, he’ll only improve.
“I feel like I could do a lot better than that,” Brazdeikis said. “I made a few errors, couple offensive fouls that I could definitely take away from the game. But I felt like I did good out there, I felt smooth, and I’m feeling more comfortable every single day.”
Added sophomore guard Jordan Poole: “He’s always been an aggressive guy and confident … But now he’s more about just driving and knowing that he’s going to bring in three or four defenders and then kick the ball out and make a play. That comes down practice and game experience, and he’s done that really quick.”
There’s still plenty in Brazdeikis’ arsenal that wasn’t on full display Friday night. On a possession in the second half, he drilled a three from the right wing but was called for a charge on the play — a play that prompted Beilein to give his own reminder of Brazdeikis’ untapped potential.
“He can shoot the ball really well, I think he’s just gotta make them in games and become that real triple threat player,” Beilein said. “ … The next step is to slow down, have the threat of a jump shot, which he really has. He just hasn’t done it yet in any of these games.”
Still, that’s the point. There haven’t been many of these games anyway.
On Friday night, Michigan took an early lead, dominated an inferior opponent and had no trouble in doing so. The point of such an exhibition, for the Wolverines, was to look for encouraging signs and work out the kinks. For the fans in attendance, it was to catch a first glimpse of the team and get excited about the season.
In those two regards, Brazdeikis delivered.