Ignas Brazdeikis is officially listed as a forward. Don’t let that fool you.
The top-40 prospect, who headlines the men’s basketball team’s 12th-ranked recruiting classes, per 247Sports’ composite score, is firmly behind redshirt junior Charles Matthews at small forward. That’s more a product of Matthews’ ability as a scorer and anchor for a defense that ranked third in adjusted efficiency last season. But Brazdeikis’ talent is enough to warrant some unorthodox moves.
“We gotta get him out on the court somehow,” Michigan coach John Beilein said last week at Big Ten Media Day.
Doing so means also playing Brazdeikis at shooting guard and power forward, forcing the freshman to learn multiple positions in Beilein’s notoriously complex system. Since coaching in Division I, it’s the third time Beilein has done that. The last was with Johannes Herber, who played under Beilein at West Virginia from 2003-06; the first was with Scott Ungerer, who was under Beilein’s tutelage from 1998-2002 at Richmond and who, like Brazdeikis, is listed as 6-foot-7.
For Ungerer, too, playing multiple positions as a freshman was as much a result of necessity as versatility. The Spiders suffered so many injuries that Ungerer, a point guard in high school, had to play center in a game at UConn.
“I’ll probably jump to a conclusion with Ignas,” Ungerer told The Daily in a phone interview. “You’ve gotta have somebody who’s smart enough, especially in (Beilein’s) system, to be able to pick up and play multiple positions. Because there is a pretty significant difference in Beilein’s two-guard offense between the guard and the forward and the center.
“Those are the three pivot spots. So you’ve gotta have somebody who’s adept and kind of comfortable, and can have a pretty quick, high-learning agility to pick up the different motions.”
Being the 4-man means playing on the wing. Often, in Beilein’s offense, it means getting the entry pass as opposed to the shooting guard, who splits the responsibility of bringing the ball up.
It’s a little more complicated than that, though.
“The offense, a lot of it, is predicated based on motion and movement,” Ungerer said. “So, somebody makes one change and cuts backdoor, it changes the whole flow of the play. So I needed to know what everybody was doing from every position.”
The reads Brazdeikis will have to make, in other words, change drastically based on position. As much as his ability to slide between two positions depends on the physical — can he guard players across the spectrum without trouble? — the mental is just as important.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think he could do it,” Beilein said. “… One day I’m gonna say, ‘You’re a 4-man, you’ve gotta crash the boards on offense.’ And then I’m gonna tell (him), ‘No, you gotta be back when you’re a 2-man.’ So there’s a lot of things. He’s gonna not be perfect at it, but he’s gonna grow as a player. He’s a guy that can handle this. His basketball IQ is good, and he picks up things quickly.”
Brazdeikis’ physical skill is already there, in droves. He’s older than most freshmen at 19 and lit up the prep school circuit last season at Orangeville Prep in Ontario, Canada. On Michigan’s trip to Spain in August, Brazdeikis averaged 15.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in three games, leading the team in scoring, per stats compiled by The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn.
If you’re looking for a reason Beilein wants him on the court so badly, that’s it. Three exhibition games though they may be, if Brazdeikis can put up those numbers in that setting, having been with the team for just weeks, think about what he can do with once fully integrated. Brazdeikis is a hamster running in a ball. He may need a little more structure, but the energy — and ability — he brings is palpable.
“He’s such a good driver that he’ll pass up an open shot, or he’ll doubt whether he’s open because he knows, anytime, (he can) just get to the hoop in prior experiences,” Beilein said. “In the Big Ten, you ain’t getting to the hoop. So we gotta get him to be able to slow down, play with pace.”
It could take time for that slow-down to happen, Ungerer said, but Brazdeikis has a noted advantage in the Spain trip. Already, he has played live competition against real opponents, albeit in an exhibition setting. And his performance was up to par.
Still, there may be kinks to work out early on. Miscommunication could be a telltale sign, Ungerer said, that Brazdeikis is still learning to play within the system. Once he does, Brazdeikis may quickly become good enough for the next level.
“When (Brazdeikis) has the ability to go to the NBA — I think he’s got a great shot of playing professional basketball — (that) they’re gonna want a guy that can play a lot of positions,” Beilein said. “A guy that can pass, can rebound, can shoot and can defend three or four positions. Iggy, I believe he can do that.”