Wednesday night’s game between North Carolina and Michigan featured two of the most hyped freshmen of this college basketball season, and both of them played for the Tar Heels. There was UNC’s starting point guard Coby White, a five-star from the state with great hair who has come into a Top-15 program and confidently put up a higher usage rate (and more shots) than anyone else on the team; he scored 33 of his team’s 89 points in a barnburner against Texas last week. More importantly, there was also possible lottery pick Nassir Little, a powerful and long wing player who some outlets ranked higher than guys like Bol Bol and Zion Williamson heading into the season.
They’re both promising players, but neither mattered much in Michigan’s 84-67 victory in Ann Arbor. That was mostly because a different and way less heralded freshman, this one wearing maize and blue, stole the show. Ignas “Iggy” Brazdeikis, a cherubic Lithuanian-Canadian with a pompadour haircut and a snake tattooed on his arm, led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Michigan is 7-0 and already probably the biggest surprise of the college basketball season after dismantlings of teams like Villanova, Providence, and now UNC, and Brazdeikis is the young year’s most out-of-nowhere star. Just seven games into his college career, he’s already feeling himself.
This is not quite as out-of-nowhere as the name “Iggy Brazdeikis” suggests, to be fair. A four-star recruit out of Mono, Ontario, the 19-year-old snuck into the top 40 of 24/7's player rankings for 2018, placing ninth at his position. But the fact that he didn’t play high school ball in the States meant he was off the radar for many prospectors, and that prevented him from getting a spot on both the Rivals board and the ESPN 100. He was by no means an afterthought for anyone who saw him aggressively attack the rim in Canada, and Michigan fans had high long-term hopes for him as their top recruiting target. That said, nobody on earth—or, anyway, no one who didn’t have the last name Brazdeikis and possibly also the first name Ignas—expected him to be a top-10 team’s best player this soon out of the gate. He is, though, and is generating highlights on a nightly basis. Put this damn circus and-one in a museum:
A feisty white dude from Ontario getting buckets for Michigan obviously invites Nik Stauskas comps. But Brazdeikis, who is more of a natural 3 who’s playing at the 4 right now, is both a couple inches taller and much stronger than Stauskas, especially given where Stauskas was as a freshman. Brazdeikis’s three-point shot isn’t yet a key strength—he’s made 7-of-18 on the year—but it’s enough of a threat to command some respect, and he’s already smart enough to know how to handle constant defensive attention. His off-ball cuts made ACC Player of the Year candidate Luke Maye look silly on multiple occasions last night, and his driving ability coupled with a knack for finding and finishing through contact makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the court. Here he is picking apart two very experienced Tar Heels—Cameron Johnson and Maye—with a pump fake from the perimeter corner, a spin move, and then a nifty shot in the paint:
Also of note for anyone comparing the two Canadians: Freshman Stauskas had an incredible supporting cast led by National Player of the Year Trey Burke, alongside future NBA draft picks Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Tim Hardaway Jr. On 2018-19 Michigan, Brazdeikis has nothing like that kind of help; the somewhat inconsistent Charles Matthews has at least made his mark in big games, and Jordan Poole regained his swagger against Carolina, but the Wolverines currently lack any offensive weapon who can even aspire to the words “third-team All-American.”
Thankfully for them, though, the new kid is picking up the slack. Michigan’s number-one defense in the country is winning them games right now, but on the other end of the floor, it’s quickly turning into the Iggy Brazdeikis show. It’s even more fun than it sounds.