ROSEMONT, Ill. — During the 2009 NBA season, a thought crawled into Juwan Howard’s head. Coaching.
As a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, he watched head coach Nate McMillan in action, and his interest was piqued. It was just a seed at the time, but eventually it sprouted into something bigger than he could imagine.
A decade later, he found himself behind the podium at Big Ten Media Day, donning a Michigan pin on the lapel of his sport coat. Between his realization in Portland and Wednesday morning, he won two NBA titles alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and spent five seasons as an assistant to Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. His convoluted journey back to Ann Arbor ended with an emotional press conference at the end of May, where he shed tears on the Crisler Center floor.
The Daily breaks down what the Wolverines’ first-year head coach had to say.
Lofty expectations for prized freshman Franz Wagner
Juwan Howard’s first win on the recruiting trail came across the pond, where he landed German wing Franz Wagner — younger brother of former Michigan star Moritz Wagner — in July. But it didn’t come at the behest of a college blue blood. Instead, Howard lured Wagner away from Alba Berlin, his pro German club.
With Wagner now spending at least a season in Ann Arbor, Howard has no intentions of coddling the freshman. He’s ready to see the floor from the start, and his ability to make an impact on offense should help compensate for the departures of Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews — a trio that accounted for the majority of the Wolverines’ offense last season. Wagner and junior wing Isaiah Livers’ ability to create their own offense could be what Michigan turns to if the offense stalls.
“Franz is talented,” Howard said. “Franz is a big, huge pickup for us. In my opinion, if Franz lived in the U.S. he’d be the equivalent of what today’s players are rated five-star — he’s that good. And to be almost 6-foot-9 at a wing position, he has a high IQ. He’s tough, he’s skilled. He can put the ball on the floor, create his own shot, and he’s not afraid to dunk on you.
“One thing I did not mention which I should’ve mentioned first was he’s an underrated defender. We all talk about his skill level offensively, but the guy can defend. He wants to defend, and that’s the beauty of Franz. He’s going to be a pro.”
Clean slate for Brandon Johns
Despite being the Wolverines’ second-highest ranked recruit last fall, Brandon Johns couldn’t earn regular minutes under John Beilein. With a year of college experience now under his belt, Johns will see an increased role under Howard.
In Johns, Howard sees all the tools. As a former NBA All-Star who worked closely with big men like Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo in Miami, Howard knows what it takes.
“(Johns) has a beautiful shot, (he’s) athletic (and) skill-wise he still hasn’t tapped all the way into what he has,” Howard said. “Once he figures that part out? Woah, this kid’s interesting. And that’s the beauty of working with Brandon and many others like Brandon, when I talk to them at the beginning of practice — great eye contact, trust, you can see I want him and I’m going to do whatever I can to help him get better.
“He knows he has an opportunity to play. We’re going to lean on him, he can be one of those stretch fours that can be able to guard a ‘2,’ ‘3,’ ‘4’ and ‘5.’ Now it’s basically picking up the concepts and learning the terminology. He’s going to be good.”
After averaging just 4.2 minutes per game across 28 appearances at the ‘5’ last season, Johns’ ability to take a stride forward could very well hinge on his confidence. As a natural power forward with defensive versatility, Johns looked uncomfortable playing the role of small-ball center last year. Despite his difficulty adjusting, he remained boxed in because few minutes were available at the ‘4.’
In Howard’s positionless basketball philosophy, he’s crossing the confidence bridge by challenging Johns with competitive practice matchups.
“I’m going to keep working with (Johns), developing him and breathing more and more confidence in him,” Howard said. “ … He’s very interesting. Playing against a Franz everyday in practice, competing against Isaiah Livers — that’s just going to help his skill level rise even more. They’re challenging one another each and every day in practice, and I’m making sure of that.”
High praise for Eli Brooks’ ‘basketball mind’
Since relinquishing starting point duties to now-senior Zavier Simpson in his freshman year, junior guard Eli Brooks has assumed a pivotal bench role. His high IQ, quick first step and ability to lead a fast break earned him playing time in each of Michigan’s 37 games last season. He averaged 13 minutes per game, averaging 2.5 points and 1.1 assists per game.
Now an upperclassman, Brooks can ease the Wolverines’ offensive struggles by igniting fast breaks that result in easy points. His quickness and decision-making in transition could ultimately determine how much playing time he sees.
“(Brooks) gets it,” Howard said. “He has a basketball mind — he picks things up so quick, you only have to tell him one time. His IQ in transition, he can apply it quickly.
“He’s super crafty with the basketball, getting to the paint, whether he’s making a play for himself or for others. He’s competitive. Some would say he’s undersized, but I think that’s what really makes him edgy because he’s counted as small at his position. I look at Eli as a combo guard.”