Brandon Johns has probably answered this question before. He’s more than happy to answer it again.
“Seventh grade,” he says, a hint of pride in his voice. “That was the first time I dunked, ever.”
If you’re looking for one fact to characterize Johns’ game, it’s that. He could rim-graze at 12. Quickly, though, he corrects himself.
“Actually, no, my first dunk was sixth grade.
“It was in my gym class, cause I was trying to dunk. And to be able to dunk at that age, everybody’s like, ‘What’s — are you? Ok, you’re a freak, or something.’ ”
Back then, the freshman forward guesses, he was 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6. Maybe freak is the right word.
Now, Johns is listed as 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, and that feels like a conservative estimate. The raw athleticism jumps out. His high school tape is a clinic on catching lobs, putting back dunks and pushing the ball in transition.
“When I see Brandon take those big strides, it’s just, wow,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers.
He doesn’t mean that in terms of Johns grasping Michigan’s system. He means it in a literal sense.
Molding that talent to Michigan coach John Beilein’s system will be the challenge for Johns. After dominating at every level, Johns suddenly won’t be the best player on the court. It’s no secret that Beilein starts his players from the beginning — rebuilding muscle memory on pivots and chest passes.
Johns has spent all his life running the floor, then jumping off one foot before shooting or passing. That has to change now. Finishing off two feet is a sticking point for Beilein.
“It’s so hard,” Johns said. “Cause I’ve been doing it almost all my life. So, to finally try to break that, it’s kind of been a struggle, but I’m getting used to it. So, it’s coming along really well now.”
Still, there’s a natural hesitancy early in the year. Johns is learning to balance his raw ability with the structure required to play under Beilein. That will take time. It’s the little things that need to be fixed.
Recently in practice, Johns slowed down for a runner instead of charging into the paint and dunking on someone. That’s the type of behavior Beilein wants to eradicate.
“(For) Brandon, it’s pretty simple,” Beilein said. “You gotta go in and use all those god-given talents. And he will.”
It doesn’t take much to see that Beilein is right about the talent. Freshman forward Colin Castleton relayed a story that conveys the opposite of hesitancy. In a recent practice, Johns, without anyone boxing him out, slammed home a putback dunk, coming out of nowhere.
That’s what the Wolverines want Johns to be — a raging ball of athleticism, with enough confidence to know when to put a wide range of skill on display and when to tone it down.
“When he figures his confidence out, it’s bad, cause he can be very aggressive,” Livers said. “He has a nice, fluent jump shot. He’s athletic. And just, defense. It starts all on defense and rebounding right now. He’s working on going to the glass more on the offensive side, getting offensive rebounds and just moving his feet when he’s guarding Zavier Simpson or Dave DeJulius out there.”
Livers knows what Johns is going through. He did it last year — well enough to earn a starting spot by January — and won’t be shocked if Johns does the same. The two Michigan natives — Livers from Kalamazoo, Johns from East Lansing — have known each other for years. They’re one year apart, and it wasn’t irregular for them to show up at the same AAU tournaments.
When Johns is hesitant on offense, or doesn’t know where to be on defense, it’s Livers who can lend a hand.
“I have to help him,” Livers said. “I’d feel wrong if I didn’t help my guy.”
In middle school, when Livers first met Johns, he was easy to pick out. He was dunking in warmups.