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Michigan aims to weaponize ‘X-factor’ Brandon Johns’ athleticism, versatility

If Johns can put it all together, he could significantly raise the Wolverines’ ceiling.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

When the Michigan men’s basketball team first lost Isaiah Livers to injury last December, Brandon Johns Jr. was thrust into the starting lineup.

It was uncharted territory for Johns, who made no starts as a freshman the previous season, but he held his own. The East Lansing native averaged 7.8 points on 47 percent shooting over a six-game stretch as Livers recovered.

Once Livers returned against Illinois at the end of January, Johns was relegated back to the bench. He scaled back his offensive aggression, scoring zero points in 18 minutes and attempting only one shot.

But against the Fighting Illini, Livers went down again. The sudden change forced Johns to reacclimate to his expanded role for a Livers-less Wolverines team with a 2-6 Big Ten record.

With Michigan in need of a spark, Johns blossomed into a go-to guy. He posted 16 points and seven rebounds in a win over Nebraska before helping the Wolverines fend off Rutgers at Madison Square Garden with 20 points and seven rebounds. Above all, though, he proved himself as someone Juwan Howard could rely on. In the two games after Livers’ second injury, Johns played 75 of 80 possible minutes.

Now a junior, Johns is ready to make an impact on a regular basis.

“We’re going to need his contribution on both sides of the floor, on offense and defense,” Howard said during a Zoom call with reporters Monday. “With his athleticism, he’s a guy that is capable of guarding (positions) ‘2’ through ‘5.’ With his shooting on the floor and also his back-to-the-basket game, which has grown a lot, we spent a lot of time developing it, we’re going to lean on him a lot. We’re going to need his production.”

In terms of roster fit, little has changed since last year. Jon Teske’s graduation was offset by the arrival of freshman center Hunter Dickinson, leaving Johns — who stands 6-foot-8 — as an optimal small-ball ‘5’ candidate. On Monday, Juwan Howard likened Johns’ ideal role to that of Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green.

“Brandon’s still growing,” Howard said. “It’s all hands on deck. He’s very versatile, so it’s great to be able to utilize him at the ‘4’ and the ‘5’ spot. He is going to be a guy we can lean on at that position, depending on the depth chart. Yes, (fifth-year senior center) Austin (Davis) and Hunter are the first two guys we give the nod to at that position. But in basketball, the game has evolved a lot, where you see teams at times play a ‘5’ that is 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-6.”

In a closed-door scrimmage last week, Johns was one of the standouts. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds while totaling a team-best +20 plus/minus across 30 minutes, according to Brendan Quinn of The Athletic.

Throughout his career, Johns has shown flashes of elite athleticism around the rim, a reliable 3-point shooting stroke and promising versatility. Now, Howard claims he’s added a post game. If he can put it all together, Johns could make a major impact on the Wolverines’ ceiling this season.

“I really do believe (Johns) could be a real X-factor,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said last week. “… He has these spurts, three baskets in four plays. He’s the best offensive rebounder in the group, and I would say his comfort and his IQ is much higher than it was last year at this time. I don’t think he thought he could get it last year, and he sometimes didn’t give himself that chance. But there’s more brightness than there is dimness now with regard to what Brandon can do.”