David DeJulius remembers Brandon Johns always being bigger than everyone else. That’s a problem when you’re in middle school and that big guy is on the other team.
“Nobody could jump with him because he was already 6-(foot-)5 at the time,” DeJulius said.
DeJulius and Johns won’t have to worry about being opponents next season as the two Michigan Mr. Basketball candidates will be teammates at the University of Michigan, hoping to add to a basketball program that has won back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles and is seeking to continue its current run into the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines have won nine games in a row, including four last weekend in New York City to win the Big Ten Tournament title. Sunday night, they will find out who, when and where they will play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that begins Thursday.
DeJulius and Johns will be watching just like other Michigan fans to find out where the Wolverines land on the bracket. They’ll also be thinking about how next season they’ll be a part of the chase for Big Ten and NCAA championships with coach John Beilein.
“My parents and I were watching them [in the Big Ten Tournament] and were so excited for them,” Johns said. “They work so hard and are such a talented team, it’s exciting to watch them. It’s pressure that we’ve got to continue what’s happening and they’re expecting a lot from us, but let’s keep it going. It’s pressure but it’s a good pressure that will keep the fire in us.”
A first since 2007
Johns is a 6-8 power forward from East Lansing who shocked a lot of people — a LOT of people — in June when he announced his commitment to the Wolverines and not hometown Michigan State. DeJulius is a 6-foot point guard from Detroit East English Village. His coach, Juan Rickman, says DeJulius is comparable offensively to former Michigan point guard Trey Burke.
“I think he’ll be good because he’s great at ball screens and he can score the ball,” Rickman said. “He’s a typical coach Beilein-type guard that can score.”
DeJulius and Johns are part of a 2018 recruiting class that ranked No. 15 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings. Johns is rated a 4-star prospect, No. 2 in the state and No. 74 overall. DeJulius is rated a 3-star prospect, No. 5 in the state and No. 130 overall. Forward Ignas Brazdeikis of Mono, Ontario, is a 6-8, 4-star prospect who is one spot below Johns in the overall rankings. Colin Castleton of Daytona Beach, Fla., is a 3-star, 6-10 power forward, while the class is rounded out with 6-5 shooting guard Adrien Nunez, a 3-star prospect from Oakdale, Conn.
Beilein has never been one to concern himself with recruiting rankings. He’s looking for the right fit for his system. Signing DeJulius and Johns marked the first time since 2007, Beilein’s first recruiting class, that Michigan signed two players from the home state. The Wolverines signed Manny Harris and Kelvin Grady that year. Harris was the last Mr. Basketball winner signed by Michigan before now-freshman Isaiah Livers won the award last year at Kalamazoo Central.
Is this part of a shift in perception about Michigan basketball, especially within the state where the Wolverines and rival Michigan State, with coach Tom Izzo, are considered among the elite programs in the nation?
“Coach B recruits people off of being a great person and a player that fits,” DeJulius said. “It just so happens that two of those guys are from Michigan. I believe people are looking at Michigan differently now. It used to be the ‘Coach B doesn’t recruit in the city.’ Now they see that’s not the case.”
‘No, run Green’
Johns played for the Lansing Spartans AAU team when he was younger. His teammates included Malik Jones, who is now a senior point guard with him at East Lansing, and Foster Loyer, a Michigan State signee and another Mr. Basketball candidate from Clarkston. DeJulius played for The Family, a large Detroit-area AAU organization with alumni including Harris, Draymond Green and Miles Bridges.
Their teams met several times over the years (“I would always end up guarding David somehow, so it would always be me and him going at it,” Johns said), but one play in particular stood out to DeJulius. It was from their middle school days.
“We were up 1 point with like 12 seconds left, and they ran an alley-oop play for him,” DeJulius said of Johns. “He got an alley-oop and laid it right in for the game.”
It wasn’t the play called in the huddle by the Lansing Spartans coach.
“Our coach wanted us to run a box play, which is me posting up,” Johns said. “Me and Foster looked at each other and said ‘No, run Green.’ They didn’t have anyone as tall as me, so we might as well just go for it. If I couldn’t dunk it, just lay it in.
“We ran it to win the game. I still remember that. I’m surprised David remembers it.”
Losing is tough to forget.
One last season before Ann Arbor
Johns and East Lansing won their third consecutive district championship Friday night, beating Waverly 56-45. He scored 33 points in the game to help the Trojans advance to the regional semifinals next week against Kalamazoo Central, the team that included Livers and knocked them out of the postseason last year.
DeJulius’ high school career came to an end in the opening round of the District 24 tournament when East English Village was upset 50-48 by Detroit Western International at Western International. DeJulius had a rough night shooting, ending up with 12 points after making just 4 of 18 field-goal attempts.
“Good looks but shots he normally makes with his eyes closed he didn’t make,” said Rickman, his coach. “He didn’t make shots he normally makes. He had open looks, he just didn’t make them. It wasn’t one of his best performances. It was just one of those nights.”
It was a performance that DeJulius said he’ll carry with him to Michigan as a learning experience. Even though he struggled in the game, he got a clean look at a potential game-tying basket as the clock wound down. It just came up short.
“That happens but you have to have that shooter’s mentality that you’re going to shoot it when you’re open and you’re going to make the right play for your teammates every time,” DeJulius said. “This is the year I grew leadership-wise the most. I had the spotlight on me the most but I needed to let my teammates know that I’m on the same page as them and I don’t feel I’m bigger than them. I’m going to carry that leadership mindset to the next level and follow the good leadership that’s already there.”
DeJulius mentioned that he has a good relationship with Livers, but that fifth-year senior guard Duncan Robinson has been someone who has embraced the 2018 class even though Robinson won’t be on the team next season. If any of them have questions, Robinson has been there with answers or just to talk.
“I appreciate that he said that. That’s nice of him to say,” Robinson said. “Both of them are super kids that really work hard and want to make an impact right away. I think that’s really cool, two kids from Michigan that have a dream of coming here and wanting to leave an impact.”
‘Next year is going to be super fun’
Michigan will lose Robinson as well as grad transfer point guard Jaaron Simmons and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman from this season’s team. Junior forward Moe Wagner tested the NBA process last year before deciding to return for another season. It’s a good bet he’ll turn pro after this season.
You won’t find much concern about the future of the program, however, because of the strong recruiting Beilein has secured. Players in his system progress in their development year to year. Derrick Walton Jr., the star of last season’s Sweet 16 team, is a perfect example but DeJulius says he sees the improvement sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson has made this season and that gives him confidence that he can do the same.
DeJulius and Johns each chose Michigan because their playing style meshes well with Beilein’s system and program. They are versatile enough to play different positions, a quality that Beilein fosters.
“In David they’re getting someone who can score, can guard. He’s a strong player and a great leader,” said Jones, Johns’ teammate on the AAU circuit and at East Lansing. “In Brandon, you’re getting a little bit of everything. He’s got shot, he plays defense, offense. He can do it all.”
DeJulius and Johns can finally be teammates.
“To be able to play with him next year, because I haven’t played with him before, next year is going to be super fun,” said Johns.