Michigan basketball can ‘go all the way’ with a freshman scorer whose name you should know

You will want to remember the name. Trust me.

Or take Northwestern coach Chris Collins’ word for it: “He is a great player. He’s a warrior, he’s tough, he makes shots, he gets to the basket, he competes. He is a really fun guy to watch.”

He is Michigan freshman Ignas Brazdeikis.

It is pronounced IG-ness brahz-DAY-kiss. If you want a shortcut, just go with his Twitter handle: @_iggy_braz.

He is 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, a natural right-hander who shoots lefty. He is the top scorer for the Big Ten’s top-ranked team. He dropped 23 points on Northwestern on Tuesday night, and the No. 5 Wolverines needed just about every one in their 62-60 win.

“I’m really happy,” Michigan coach John Beilein said, “to sneak out of here with a victory.”

Brazdeikis was polished in postgame interviews after signing autographs outside the visitors locker room at the new Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“I absolutely love environments like this,” he said. “It was really hostile out there. (Northwestern) punched us in the face and we got knocked down. But this game brought us together and showed us how tough we are.”

Brazdeikis, who turns 20 next month, was born in Lithuania. At 2 his parents emigrated to Chicago (Brookfield, specifically). After three years they moved to Canada, eventually settling in the Toronto suburb of Oakville, Ontario.

He developed into a top-40 recruit and picked Michigan over Vanderbilt and Cincinnati.

“We saw him and we loved him, but I know the schools he had going,” Collins said. “Michigan has had great success in Canada with (Nik) Stauskas, and he fits very well with what they do.”

There are about a dozen Canadians in the NBA, including Stauskas, the former Michigan guard who plays for the Trail Blazers.

“I started off being the biggest Kobe Bryant fan in the world,” Brazdeikis said. “I love his game, love his intensity. Then I started to love Carmelo (Anthony). I feel like me and him have some similar attributes. And then I transitioned more to James Harden because we’re both lefties and we like to be creative with the ball.”

Brazdeikis beats defenders in a variety of ways: He hit a step-back 3 on NU freshman Miller Kopp. He faded away from the long arms of Vic Law for a baseline jumper. He took Kopp to the hoop, finishing with his right hand.

He is averaging 17 points and shooting 54.2 percent and 44.4 percent on 3-pointers — exceptional percentages for a first-year player. He went 9-for-18 on Tuesday, hitting 3 of 6 from deep.

“I’m a confident and aggressive player,” he said. “I don’t shy away from these moments.”

Said Beilein: “He gives us buckets when we can’t get one.”

A coach being a coach, Beilein added: “He is still learning to play the game. He makes such obvious freshman mistakes sometimes.”

Beilein was referring mainly to defense, knowing when to switch off screens. Brazdeikis also erred on Michigan’s final possession Tuesday. He got the ball with 4 seconds on the shot clock and had a chance to shoot a short, contested jumper. Instead he passed, resulting in a shot-clock violation.

But after the Wolverines denied Northwestern on its final possession, they walked off with a 9-0 record. Only Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke and Virginia are ranked higher.

How far can this team go?

“We can go all the way,” Brazdeikis said. “We can win the whole damn thing, no doubt.”

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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