Brandon Johns making 'baby steps' as Michigan continues backup search
“For me, when I think about it, I literally think about baby steps," Johns said Friday afternoon. "It’s coming along, but to me, for some reason it feels like it’s coming along slower than I want it to.
"Obviously, it’s different for every person, but it’s starting to come along a little better. Starting to understand a lot more. It’s literally been baby steps.”
Johns' development is one of the bigger questions facing No. 7 Michigan (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) as it heads into the final stretch of conference play. It faces a challenge Saturday, when it hosts surging Wisconsin (17-6, 9-3) at Crisler Center (Noon, Fox).
The Wolverines' biggest problem is a lack of depth. Michigan has featured a seven-man rotation all season that has recently tightened toward six.
Johns has yet to establish a consistent role. He has played in 17 of 23 games and averages 4.5 minutes; he has seen double-digit minutes three times.
The 6-foot-8 freshman has battled redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis for minutes behind center Jon Teske. And so far, neither player has pulled ahead of the other.
That leaves the Wolverines with a giant question mark behind Teske, perhaps the team's most important player.
"Every day, we’re seeing great strides, (Johns is) still not the best option for us to be the guy that goes in," Beilein said, "and we don’t have an option right now, and we’re just sort of flying by the seat of our pants based on what happens in two days of practice.
"So he’s a great kid, he’s trying really hard and we’re working with him. And hopefully it’ll continue to progress and one day it’ll really start to come together. He is improving.”
There have been moments when Johns looks ready for the opportunity. In his team's 75-64 win over Indiana on Jan. 6, Johns scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds — three offensive — in 13 minutes.
But the lows have been omnipresent.
When Teske picked up two early fouls at Iowa, Johns struggled through 10 minutes of playing time. Michigan lost, 74-59, because of the 21-2 run the Hawkeyes made in the first half with Teske on the bench.
Johns admits his acclimation to the college game has not gone as expected, and takes responsibility.
“I think in high school I worked hard," Johns said, "but I don’t think I worked as hard as I wanted to, and I didn’t learn as much as I needed to to be prepared for these moments.”
He wants to follow the path of former forward DJ Wilson, a bit player in his first two seasons at Michigan who became a starter in his third and an eventual first-round NBA draft pick.
"I’m in the same spot he was," Johns said. "He didn’t really play that much, but then as he got through the years, he really developed and became a really wonderful player. So I think that’s what I’m trying to take after right now and follow in his footsteps a little bit.”
For now, Johns remains patient, with a sunny disposition. He is focused on the little things: being a good teammate, remaining confident, staying positive and playing with a high motor. Time will tell if the baby steps lead him to a bigger role — one that Michigan needs to fill.
“Brandon is just making all these baby steps every single day," Beilein said. "But this is a big man’s league, and he’s 19 years old. A lot of the big men he’s playing against are older, more experienced, stronger than he is, and he’s just sort of learning how to exist at this level and still getting better."