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Basketball season review: Brandon Johns Jr. found his groove late in 2020-21

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Johns broke out and proved why there is still potential to his game.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Florida State at Michigan IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

When Brandon Johns Jr. came to Ann Arbor, he was one of the most sought-after players in Michigan and a Top-70 recruit in the Class of 2018. Under John Beilein, Johns played more than 10 minutes in four games and was seen as a promising prospect that could crack the starting lineup and be a big piece moving forward.

Then Juwan Howard took over and he was asked to change his game a little. He was a starter for a large portion of 2019-20 with an injury to Isaiah Livers, but he struggled to find his groove with the team late in the season when Livers returned to the floor.

With Hunter Dickinson being as dominant as he was as a freshman, Johns saw an even more diminished role. His minutes were cut from almost 20 a game last season to less than 13 by the end of this year. As an upperclassman, it was supposed to be a year where he made a considerable leap. Instead, he was mostly a role player that took advantage of the “next-man-up” mentality.

Brandon Johns Jr. Stats

Johns averaged 4.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 0.5 assists in 12.9 minutes per game. His numbers were down year-over-year and a large reason for that was the fewer minutes he saw on the floor. For the majority of the season, he was hot and cold. Austin Davis and Hunter Dickinson were the big men in the middle who were meant to take over in the paint with their size and moves inside the post. If teams doubled or focused more on the big men in the middle, it was their responsibility to kick it out to the shooter and crash the boards.

But Johns Jr. lacked that same size and interior game. At 6-foot-8 he was far less physically imposing. Although he was more athletic than Davis and Dickinson, he was not favored at the center position for any more than a few minutes a game at most of the two men above him were in foul trouble.

So rather than playing him at the five, Howard plugged him in at the four behind Isaiah Livers. The star senior averaged 31.6 minutes of a 40-minute basketball game and there was not much room for Johns to have many breakout nights. He was nowhere near the shooter that Livers or Franz Wagner were at the wing and is not known for making his own shot. Livers shot about five three-pointers a game in 2020-21, Wagner hovered around 3.5. Meanwhile, Johns shot less than one three-pointer per game, making him a much different forward when entering the lineup.

Johns Jr. is known to swat away some layups in a help defense situation, but I would not call him a great on-ball defender. He is much smaller than most centers in the Big Ten and is much slower than most of the wings and power forwards that play at his position. In this case, he fell out of favor rather quickly this season under Howard, averaging less than 10 minutes per game up until he stepped in for Livers.

Once Livers went down, there was a huge shock to the offense as their best scorer and shot creator was no longer there. Howard quickly realized that what they were doing was not going to work in the postseason as the team lost two of three heading into the NCAA Tournament.

The team switched to a much more interior mentality and ran a considerable amount of high-low action to start their trip in March. Johns played 25 minutes or more in each of the Wolverines’ tournament games. He was the leading scorer (along with Hunter Dickinson) against Florida State with 14 points and 6 rebounds and slowly began to gain some confidence in his game.

Here’s what he said after the blowout win over the Seminoles:

“My teammates and my coaches have been helping me a lot, trying to instill confidence in me,” Johns said. “I’m trying to reciprocate that. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, a lot of my coaches’ words and stuff trying to keep my confidence up...“It’s been working. I think believing in yourself has been helping more than ever.”

Where he fits next season

With so many forwards on their way out of Ann Arbor at the end of this season, you’d have to speculate that Johns will have a much more expanded role. Livers is gone and Wagner is likely to follow, but Davis and Chaundee Brown are also not going to return for another year at Michigan.

I suspect the offense we saw late in the year with a lot more high-low action is going to be the set we see the most from Michigan to open up 2021-22, which should mean considerable playing time for Johns. He and Dickinson proved throughout their tournament run that they can find success in the post together and Johns Jr. is versatile enough to play in the corner as well.

To be as high of a caliber team next year, Johns is going to have to step up defensively and continue to gain confidence in his shooting and postwork. If he can play like he did late last season for an entire year, and continue to work on his game in the offseason with Howard, he could find his way into the next level rather easily.

It seems like every broadcast team that covered a Michigan game talked about the ceiling of Johns Jr. and 2021-22 will be the last chance he has in college to prove that he can play the highest level of basketball. If there is one guy who the program needs to make a massive jump this offseason, it is him.