Basketball fans all over the world were tuning in Sunday to ESPN’s debut of the highly-anticipated documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls on their sixth and last NBA title run in 1997-98.
A Chicago native, newly-signed Gophers forward Brandon Johnson sees “The Last Dance” series as motivation to finish his final season strong in the Big Ten.
“I’m going into my last season of college basketball with that mentality!” Johnson wrote on his Instagram over the weekend with a picture of himself in a Gophers uniform.
Johnson thanked people at Western Michigan for their support, but said, “I’m ready and blessed for my last dance in college – and can’t wait to see what my future holds.”
The future with Johnson in the frontcourt looks brighter for Richard Pitino’s squad. They could use the aggressiveness, toughness, and versatility he showed in his first three seasons with the Broncos.
The 6-foot-8, 220-pound redshirt junior was an All-Mid-American Conference third-team selection after averaging 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and shooting 73 percent from the foul line in 2019-20.
“Brandon was exactly what we needed,” Pitino said during a Zoom conference call last week. “He's physical, he's a Big Ten-type player.”
Johnson received no high-major scholarship offers in high school. His former AAU coach, Aubrey DeNard of Young & Reckless basketball in Chicago, said Johnson was underrated as a long and athletic forward with the ability to play in the post and on the perimeter, even running point guard for his high school team at times.
Sounds a little bit like Jordan's Hall of Fame Bulls' teammate Scottie Pippen, who was featured quite a bit in Episode 2 of the ESPN series that aired recently.
Gophers coaches even said Johnson's game reminds them of Pippen's versatility, being that he's also a 6-8 do-it-all type of player.
As a freshman, Johnson was an instant impact player for Western Michigan. He started every game, while leading the team in rebounds, tying for the team lead in blocks and ranking fourth in scoring in 2016-17. His role continued to grow into the team's emotional leader, and he became one of the MAC's top all-around players as well.
“He’s versatile as hell,” said DeNard, who also coached Gophers incoming freshman Martice Mitchell. “He’s great in the post. Great post moves and pivot work. He can just flat out score down there and can hit the three. He puts it on the floor and can break you down if you have slow feet. He’ll size you up, put it through his legs and cross you over.”
With the loss of All-America sophomore center Daniel Oturu to the NBA Draft and senior forward Alihan Demir to graduation, the Gophers will have an entirely new starting frontcourt next season. Drake transfer Liam Robbins should replace Oturu, if he becomes immediately eligible. Johnson is expected to slide into the power forward slot next to Robbins, a reason he thought the Gophers were a great fit.
Johnson, who still hasn't visited Minnesota, isn't sure when he'll arrive with the pandemic shutting down campus. Right now, he's at home in Chicago finishing up classes for Western Michigan. He watched the start of Jordan's documentary with his family recently. Johnson attended a game in MJ's final season in the NBA.
"It's crazy," he told the Star Tribune. "I knew about [the Bulls] young. My parents told me watching their games as a child calmed me down."
It will be a fun ride to watch the rest of "The Last Dance" this spring and summer, but we already know what happens in the conclusion of the 10-part series about the end of the Bulls’ dynasty. Johnson hopes his last dance in college ends in the Big Dance with the Gophers.
“Every day, I’m going to strive to do my best to help my team get there to reach our goal,” Johnson told the Star Tribune earlier this month. “My whole college career, I’ve been dreaming about making the NCAA tournament. Now I feel like I have a great chance of doing that. I feel like there’s nothing that’s going to be able to slow me down or stop me to help my team get there.”