When the Michigan men’s basketball team hired Juwan Howard in May, most of the roster was left in limbo.
Brandon Johns Jr. wasn’t part of that group. So far this season, that much is clear. Only a year after an uncomfortable small-ball ‘5’ role defined his freshman campaign in all the wrong ways, the sophomore forward has become a key rotational piece for the Wolverines.
At 6-foot-9, Johns’ combination of size and athleticism allows him to defend multiple positions and space the floor on offense. For a Michigan team that emphasizes playing positionless basketball at a fast pace, Johns fits the bill of an ideal role player. He’s one of three reserves who sees the court in every game, averaging 4.4 points and 4.1 rebounds across 14.4 minutes.
Last Saturday, Johns played an instrumental role in erasing a 16-point deficit in the Wolverines’ loss to Oregon. When the Ducks’ would-be game-winning three was waved off, Howard opted to roll with Johns over senior center Jon Teske in overtime. He scored eight points, pulled down nine boards and made his presence felt on defense in a career-high 22 minutes.
The performance came just a week after Johns posted a career-best 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting against Iowa. In his case, opportunity has brought results. In games when he plays more than 18 minutes, Johns is averaging 10 points and 8.5 rebounds. He’ll miss Saturday’s game against Presbyterian due to an illness, Howard told reporters on Friday, but figures to be an important piece once Big Ten play picks up.
The Daily broke down the film to shed light on Johns’ impact:
From a defensive standpoint, Johns showcased his effectiveness both inside and outside against Oregon. With the shot clock winding down in a tie game, the Ducks set a ball screen for All-Pac-12 point guard Payton Pritchard. Knowing Michigan would switch defenders, Pritchard tried to drive downhill against Johns with the goal of getting to the rim or drawing a foul.
Johns didn’t bite. Instead of reaching for the ball on the drive or committing a foul on the shot, he successfully contested the layup. In this case, it starts with his footwork. When he didn’t have an angle to affect the shot, he created one by moving his feet. The improved position left him less susceptible to a foul call and put him in a better spot to alter Pritchard’s release.
When the 6-foot-1 Pritchard left the ground, Johns contested the shot by using verticality instead of coming down on the ball, which is often interpreted as a foul. His two successful defensive maneuvers left Pritchard with nowhere to go, resulting in a flailing layup.
Later in the play, with two seconds left on the shot clock, Oregon guard Anthony Mathis beat freshman wing Franz Wagner’s closeout off the dribble. Junior forward Isaiah Livers missed his help assignment on the drive, which left only Johns between Mathis and the rim. Knowing there wasn’t enough time for a dropoff pass to his matchup, Johns stepped away from his assignment to prevent Mathis from having a layup.
After watching Johns successfully defend Pritchard’s layup only moments earlier, Mathis was left with two options: shoot a floater over Johns or try a finger roll beneath his outstretched arm. He opted for the latter, and Johns emphatically sent it back as the shot clock expired.
On the offensive glass, Johns’ sheer athleticism gives him an upper-hand. In this clip, he out-leaps three Ducks. No running start, no gimmicks. He snatched the ball with two hands at the height of his vertical, ripping it away from any weak points where Oregon could jar it loose. Because he kept his head up throughout the process of coming down with the ball, he was able to find sophomore guard David DeJulius for an open three.
While playing center last season, Johns looked uncomfortable and out of place. Much of his recent success is a product of his athleticism, and former coach John Beilein’s decision to confine him to the interior had put a ceiling on his impact.
Under Howard, Johns can take advantage of matchup advantages from anywhere on the floor. Last Saturday, he showed confidence in doing so. As Michigan trailed with less than two minutes to play in regulation, Johns caught an inbounds pass at the top of the key, blew by his defender’s closeout and finished at the rim through contact from a help defender.
With the Wolverines trailing by a point in overtime, Johns called for the ball in the high post and made one of his most effective moves yet. After catching the ball in a power position and using a jab step to read his defender, he used a spin move to slice through a pair of Ducks and reach the rim. The shot ultimately rimmed out, but Johns drew a foul and gave Michigan a chance to take the lead.
When Iowa tried to slow Michigan’s offense down with a zone defense two weeks ago, Johns’ versatility helped the Wolverines pick it apart. His ability to shoot from beyond the arc allowed Michigan to break the zone by using quick ball movement to spread the Hawkeyes out.
In the span of two seconds, the ball made its way from the top of the key to the left wing to the left corner, where Johns took advantage of a reeling defender’s late closeout by burying a three. If Johns wasn’t a capable 3-point shooter, Iowa would’ve been able to condense its zone and give itself a better chance at success.
With the Hawkeyes in zone for much of the game, the Wolverines began stationing Teske at the high post. When he caught the ball at the foul line, Hawkeyes’ center Luka Garza slid up to take away the mid-range jumper. The defensive shift triggered a backdoor cut from Johns, who took advantage of sleeping baseline defenders for a pair of easy dunks.
Among the beneficiaries of Howard’s hiring, Johns has stood out. Michigan’s up-tempo, NBA-like offense has been welcomed his athleticism, while his defensive prowess has allowed him to earn Howard’s trust as a two-way player.
The same Johns that looked lost for much of his freshman season is playing a new brand of basketball — one that highlights everything that made him a highly-touted four-star recruit in 2018 instead of one that minimizes his strengths.
Two months into his sophomore campaign, it’s making all the difference.