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Brandon Johns’ psychological overhaul leads to breakout game

The junior forward has worked to improve his confidence since arriving in Ann Arbor.

Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

For Brandon Johns Jr., the puzzle pieces have been there since the day he stepped foot on campus.

The raw athleticism is obvious. The length, size, and leaping ability stand out. The 3-point shot has come along. Johns has always had the tools, but parlaying them into consistent production has proved challenging.

With most players, all it takes is a physical adjustment. A tweak in technique later, they’re ready to contribute. But with Brandon Johns, it’s between the ears.

“(Johns) has to breathe — and that’s not a smart-ass answer,” Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli told reporters in December. “He’s trying to play this game right now holding his breath. And he’s gotta loosen up. … He seems to me to be tensing up, and Juwan Howard is not a coach that causes you to tense up. I’m going to make that a project to make sure that Brandon remembers to breathe and relax.

On Tuesday, Johns’ progress was clear. He scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbed four rebounds across 13 minutes in the Wolverines’ 87-63 win over Maryland. After spending much of last season as a small-ball ‘5’ option, he saw an extended run at his natural ‘4’ position alongside Austin Davis.

Whether it was a temporary rotation adjustment or a permanent change remains to be seen, but the early returns were promising. Johns’ impact performance is the source of confidence he needs to contribute regularly.

“I feel more consistent with my confidence this year, mostly,” Johns said. “Every game, I don’t think there’s been a game, really, where I didn’t believe in myself. There are some shots where I went, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t normally take that because of my own belief in myself from the past two years.’ It’s like a habit now. I’m in the process of breaking out of those little minor habits. Overall, I think I’ve had confidence these past 13 games. A great amount, for sure.”

In Johns’ case, the biggest difference on that front is the evolution of his own self-belief. During his first two seasons at Michigan, there were times when he was the only one standing in his own way.

He did a good job filling in for an injured Isaiah Livers last season, especially during the Wolverines’ trip to Madison Square Garden. He scored a team-high 20 points in a win over Rutgers in the Big Apple, but he couldn’t sustain the momentum going forward. Much of that stemmed from his psyche.

That was then. This is now.

“I would get into thinking too much because I didn’t want to make the wrong play instead of just playing,” Johns said. “Like I said, I feel like my confidence is starting to get a lot better, especially from the last few years. I’m just trusting myself more.”

Added Livers: “Brandon’s thing early on was that he wasn’t locked in. His name was called, and he just wasn’t ready. Now he’s like anticipating his name (getting) called and coming to get me as my first sub. You can see it in his eyes. I just love it. That’s the thing I’ve seen from his freshman year. He’s locked in ready to go.”

It took more effort than it would to adjust an elbow in his jump-shooting form or change his crossover dribble, but it appears Johns is standing on the precipice of unlocking his full potential.

And for that, he has his improved mindset to thank.

“You’ve got to reconstruct your mind into knowing you can do these things that you normally would say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this,’ ” Johns said. “It’s kind of just taking that ‘can’t’ word out, knowing that you can do something.”