Brandon Johns, along with the other four members of Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class, arrived on campus last weekend. An East Lansing native, the second-ranked kid in the state, Ann Arbor wasn’t the place he was supposed to end up.
Johns’ 247Sports crystal ball read, “Michigan State: 100,” through last June. Tom Izzo was in attendance to watch his eighth grade AAU team play a title game, and soon became a regular visitor to East Lansing High School once Johns started playing there.
Before he was allowed to play on the varsity though, Johns had to go through a tryout for the freshman team. Didn’t matter that he was 6-foot-7, giraffe-like, the ability to dunk already in his bag of tricks. He had to go the same way as everybody else.
The coaching staff at East Lansing had seen this situation before, a good player being forced to go through a tryout that was all but a formality. Most hadn’t taken well to the idea. Johns didn’t mind.
“The reality is, all of the best players probably would have been insulted by this, but he didn’t really care,” Kevin Mayes, the JV coach at East Lansing, said. “He just went out there and kicked everybody’s ass.”
The tryout was a joke. Johns was bigger and more athletic than everybody. He boasted more speed than anyone his size had a right to have and hops most high school freshmen can’t work up in their dreams.
Johns cut himself dunking partway through the scrimmage and had to sit out the rest. He made varsity anyway.
“That first impression was, here’s another great basketball player who’s probably gonna pitch a fit about a freshman tryout,” Mayes said. “And then my jaw dropped when he said, ‘Alright,’ and went out there and just beat everybody’s tail. Didn’t care. Wasn’t insulted.
“He was just a high-level AAU kid, playing all over the country, flying all over the place, playing here, playing there, being told by a couple high school coaches, ‘You gotta try out for the freshmen,’ and he goes, ‘Ok.’ And just did it.”
By that point, college coaches were already on Johns’ tail with regularity. Iowa and Ohio State took peaks in the early goings. Alabama once came to watch him work out at 5:30 in the morning. Johns beat the coaching staff to the gym.
Quickly though, it became clear to everybody involved that only two schools had a shot: Michigan and Michigan State.
All the while, Johns was growing into himself and getting better. That freshman year, he made varsity and started, but his game was mostly confined to taking 3-pointers. Since then, he has made strides.
Johns officially measures at 6-foot-8 now. He’s described as nimble, a capable scorer inside and out, and a great passer for someone his size. Once, someone walked up to Steve Finamore, his coach at East Lansing, after seeing Johns play with a comparison in mind.
“He said, ‘I haven’t seen a passer at his size, in high school, since Magic Johnson,’ ” Finamore recalled. “… Brandon would bring the ball up the court for us and hit the open man. And I’ve never seen that.”
Of course, Johns almost certainly won’t be the next Magic Johnson. But take all of the factors surrounding him — growing up a Michigan State fan in East Lansing, Izzo starting to recruit him in middle school, playing AAU ball with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman, and yes, that comparison — and it’s not exactly hard to see why people assumed he’d end up playing for the Spartans.
It’s not hard to figure out why Tom Izzo seems to have been one of those people either.
“Michigan State was, I’ve never seen Michigan State on a recruit as much as him,” Mayes said. “It was something. They were there as much as legally allowed, constantly coming to visit.”
Beilein was at that eighth grade title game, too, and, he came around to see Johns, but not as much as his counterpart. It wasn’t necessary.
On November 10 of last year, Johns signed his letter of intent to play for Michigan. Izzo, he told the Lansing State Journal, “went on a whole rant,” when Johns called to inform him of the decision.
“Probably the best way to explain it is with the visits, with conversations, watching the style of play, looking at where he would be playing at Michigan versus how he would be utilized at Michigan State,” Mayes said. “I don’t really think Beilein cares whether you’re a freshman or a senior, if you earn the (playing) time you’re gonna get it. That’s not the case everywhere. And so I think it was just — it was a little bit of everything.”
Now, he comes to Ann Arbor ready to be a cog in Beilein’s system. Like with that freshman tryout, he won’t complain or agitate when things don’t go his way. He’ll simply put his head down and get to work.
Photo: Michigan Basketball