Brandon Johns didn’t play 13 minutes in No. 2 Michigan’s 74-63 win over No. 21 Indiana because he had earned it in practice.
No, the freshman forward played out of necessity.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers — who plays the ‘4’ and the ‘5’ in small-ball lineups — sat out his second consecutive game with a back injury. Meanwhile, Jon Teske and Austin Davis, the two big men ahead of Johns in the rotation, found themselves in foul trouble while defending Indiana’s Juwan Morgan.
Johns, who entered Sunday’s game having played 36 minutes total this season, simply had to play against the Hoosiers.
Johns’ 13 minutes Sunday worked out well for Michigan. Johns scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds, providing a glimpse of his potential and staking a claim for more playing time.
“We’ll see how he does in the next two days,” U-M coach John Beilein said. “But he’s certainly now, there’s an argument for him to be the first big man off the bench after (the way) he played today.”
The leaping ability that made Johns a dynamic prospect out of high school was on display against the Hoosiers. Johns grabbed several tough rebounds in traffic, threw down a pair of dunks — including a one-hander off a feed from Zavier Simpson — and even put back one of his own misses.
Johns had spoken previously about the difficulty of learning a new position. Michigan’s defensive scheme, in particular has been much tougher to learn than offense.
According to Johns, he has had to improve gradually and prove to coaches and teammates that he can be trusted.
All of that led to Sunday, when Johns looked more comfortable and wasn’t overmatched against Morgan, one of the Big Ten’s premier big men.
After Teske and Davis picked up several fouls in the second half when Indiana went inside to Morgan, Johns didn’t. He was active on defense, hedging hard on ball screens, recovering to pick up his man and pulling down rebounds.
What makes Johns’ success against the Hoosiers unique is how it came about.
While Johns has improved throughout the year, Beilein was quick to point out that he hasn’t been consistent.
“We played 4-on-4 the other day, full court,” Beilein said. “He was a non-factor in the game.”
Necessity on Sunday allowed Johns to skip the usual work of earning more playing time in practice.
He’ll still have to prove himself in practice. But it’s hard to discount a performance like Sunday’s, when Johns showed he could handle a big game.
The Wolverines already are a deep team. And with Johns’ emergence, they may have gotten even deeper.
Contact Orion Sang: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang.