Why Brandon Johns is exactly the breakout player Michigan basketball needs

Johns finishes with 8 points, 8 rebounds against Indiana

Michigan freshman Brandon Johns Jr. throws down a dunk against Indiana during the first breakout game of his career -- an eight-point, eight-rebound effort on Jan. 6, 2019, at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Michigan freshman Brandon Johns Jr. throws down a dunk against Indiana during the first breakout game of his career -- an eight-point, eight-rebound effort on Jan. 6, 2019, at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – For a college basketball program, it doesn't get much better than what Michigan's doing these days.

Fresh off its second national championship game appearance in five years, Michigan is one of only three undefeated teams left in the country and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.

READ: Michigan has best basketball program in country over last 11 months

There aren't many weaknesses on this Michigan team, which ranked No. 4 nationally in defensive efficiency and No. 20 on offense, according to KenPom. Three-point shooting, which was considered a concern coming into the season, has been just fine at 37 percent.

One concern for Michigan heading into the grueling Big Ten schedule was front court depth. Jon Teske is a strong two-way player for the Wolverines, but when he gets in foul trouble or needs a break, where can Michigan turn?

John Beilein has used a smaller lineup at times, inserting versatile forward Isaiah Livers as a center. Livers is battling back spasms, however, and it's unclear when he'll be able to return or if the injury will nag him the entire year.

Austin Davis can give Teske a break, but he hasn't developed much of an offensive game and he's foul-prone on defense.

Enter Brandon Johns.

Recruiting profile

With Michigan using primarily a seven-man rotation, Johns was considered the player most likely to enter the mix at some point this season.

The 6-foot-8 true freshman committed to Michigan despite playing at East Lansing High School in the heart of Michigan State territory.

Johns was the No. 2 player in Michigan's 2018 recruiting class behind Ignas Brazdeikis, ranking as the No. 70 overall player and No. 16 power forward.

Beilein has said the transition to center wasn't easy for Johns, who had to move positions on top of adjusting to the college game and learning Michigan's complex schemes.

As a high four-star recruit in a thin back court, it felt like only a matter of time before Johns played meaningful minutes in a Michigan uniform.

Sunday's breakout game

It's not easy for true freshmen to earn Beilein's trust, and Johns hadn't done much to do so before Sunday's matchup with Indiana. Most recently, Johns earned a chance during the Air Force game, but was yanked after fouling a 3-point shooter.

Beilein had no choice Sunday, though, with Livers out and both Teske and Davis in significant foul trouble. Johns was really the only option.

For the first time, he absolutely made the most of his playing opportunity.

Moments after checking into the game, Johns grabbed his first rebound after playing good defense against Indiana star Juwan Morgan. He picked up his second rebound on the following Indiana possession, then converted a tough layup on a screen and roll with Eli Brooks.

Zavier Simpson was the next player to miss a shot in the game, but Johns hauled in his first offensive rebound. The freshman was relentless on the glass, battling on both ends of the court.

Johns got another opportunity in the second half and scored his second basket on an explosive put-back dunk. His only missed shot of the game came with seven minutes remaining, and he jumped up and tipped the miss in for another bucket.

His final basket was the most memorable, a soaring one-handed slam down the wide-open lane thanks to a good pass from Simpson.

With the crowd still on its feet after the dunk, Johns made his best defensive play, blocking Morgan's layup attempt.

He finished with eight points, eight rebounds and a block in 13 minutes. He tipped his only missed shot in and committed one foul.

Johns also played solid defense against a senior who led all scorers with 25 points.

Michigan breakout games vs. Indiana

Johns' outburst wasn't unlike the one that first put Moritz Wagner on the radar in March 2016.

Wagner's breakout game also came against a ranked Indiana, this time in a must-win Big Ten Tournament contest.

Wagner, who hadn't topped 10 minutes or four points in any Big Ten game, earned 16 minutes against the Hoosiers, going 3-3 for nine points and grabbing two rebounds.

Last season, Jordan Poole was averaging less than five minutes per game until he exploded for 19 points on seven of 12 shooting in 27 minutes against Indiana. It was his best game of the season.

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