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Rook takes pawns

Mike Olson Avatar
May 5, 2023

“My job? I got six fouls.”
– Christian Braun

Before Christian Braun was even ten years old, his parents started a kid’s basketball program that traveled far and wide to get in games against higher competition. Sort of a barnstorming affair. Braun’s mother/basketball coach Lisa may have had something to do with Christian’s competitiveness and complete game. Lisa had been no slouch herself as a player, gaining All-Big Eight honors three times in her four years at Missouri, eventually earning herself a spot in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. The habits the hyper-competitive Lisa had learned were now being imparted to a group of young and impressionable basketball sponges, and one of them was on the car ride all the way home, and always got an earful.

By the time CB was in sixth grade, that touring team won a national championship in its age group.

They were habits that would stick with Braun, who seems to have picked up that same perfectionism competitive DNA from his mom. He didn’t just do the big things that kids playing basketball loved to do most, the scoring, the blocking, the things that make even opposing-side parents say, “Ooooo”. Christian also liked to get his hands dirty, diving for loose balls, knocking down passes, stopping his opponent from scoring. Sometimes from scoring at all.

When Christian moved on to high school, he immediately stood out to his coaches for his sense and sensibilities in doing “the little things that impact winning”. A pattern that would follow Braun at every level of his career emerged. His winning habits would expand his role on the team, and then his influence on the other players, with him eventually starring as a leader. Braun’s high school teams would go on to win three consecutive Kansas 6A state championship titles. As a senior on the way to that last title, he’d average 27.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.8 assists on his way to being named Mr. Kansas Basketball and Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year.

Much to the delight of his fellow Kansans, CB kept his collegiate act in his home state, and his methods and madness followed along quickly, with Braun making an early impact on a Kansas team many thought had the horses to win it all in his freshman year. That juggernaut was shuttered by COVID shutting down basketball before the tourney that year, but Christian made sure to carry on the habits he’d taken to every stop since he was just a little kid. Do the hard things. The little things. Make the hustle play. Make nothing easy for the guy on the other side. Hone your skills so that nobody even wants to play against you. By Braun’s junior year, he’d played such an incredibly complete season alongside his Kansas teammates that those killer instincts and lethal habits had carried him to the top of yet another stage.

So when Calvin Booth had his very first selection of his very first draft as an NBA GM, the 21st pick of the first round, he was looking for someone competitive. Hard-nosed. A long defensive wing who did all the little things. Someone who loved the intangibles even more than the highlights, who could get his hands dirty on the defensive end, make a bucket when called upon, and make the plays that could help turn little moments into to Nuggets wins. Someone who could defend 1-4. Maybe even someone with a championship pedigree and background.

Sound familiar?

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone notoriously gives his rookie players very little rope to hang themselves with in their early time with the team, often yanking them after a mistake or five. While Malone takes criticism for his early hook with the rooks, he’s also been working on building this playoff beast tirelessly for years now, and there have been precious few moments along the way for him to let his foot off the gas pedal enough to engage wholly in some teaching moments. In the moments the Nuggets had salted a game away this season, and when the rookie saw the floor, he did a few things so few players bother with in scrub time. Christian passed the ball. He stole the ball. He blocked shots and passes. And he took the shots that were open, not the ones that might give him a couple points on that night’s stat sheet. He played the basketball he’d been playing ever since his mom was chewing his ass into the passenger seat of their long ride home, and he ate up every lesson. Even Coach Mike was duly impressed.

By the second half of the year, the rook was seeing more play, and the reason he wasn’t getting the hook wasn’t so much that Malone was going soft, as that Braun simply wasn’t giving Malone a reason to pull him. CB was overdue in solidifying a spot in the rotation just as the trade deadline brought an experienced vet with some playoff credibility in Reggie Jackson. Malone owed the new guys who had earned respect on their previous squads a chance to come in and see what impact they might make. Suddenly the promising rookie saw his minutes dwindle, but stayed ready and active for whatever crumbs he got. When Jackson’s minutes weren’t playing out well for the team, Malone started reinserting Braun into the bench lineups, which started defensively stemming the tide/bloodbath that had been the team’s non-Nikola Jokic minutes. Even the number showed, the kid just played winning basketball.

The team’s playoff course seemed clear. The Nuggets had greater success every time the rook was in the mix. If only they’d been listening to the DNVR NBA crew, who had been clamoring for regular CB minutes since he’d first started putting his stamp on games. Similar to every coach who had preceded him, Malone finally conceded he couldn’t keep Braun out any longer, as time and again, he simply made “winning plays”.

Somehow, the rook’s impending success in these playoffs seemed to be off the radar of most of the national media, and somehow even more surprisingly, his first- and second-round opponents, until CB came out and simply would not be ignored. Even when his scoring got spotty under some pretty bright lights, he brought all of the tangibles and intangibles he’s always brought, making his minutes plus minutes time and again. Ask Rudy Gobert. Ask Kevin Durant. Ask Devin Booker. Hell… Ask Kyle Anderson.

Amongst those many impressive plays, look at how far CB moves KD up the key on that sequence that starts at :15. Durant has him by 6-7 inches, and Braun simply sweeps him away toward half court. Remarkable.

When you take two seconds to see the pattern in the data, is this first year for Braun really that much a surprise? Are those of us outside the Denver media at least ready to start pronouncing this kid’s last name correctly? Maybe they’ll catch onto “Brown” faster than they did to “Yo-kitch”. This kid Braun…. A champion as a kid, a champion as a high schooler, a champion as a collegian, and please basketball gods, a champion as a member of the Denver Nuggets. This rook, he makes an indelible impression everywhere he lands. This rook, this Braun kid, the 21st pick, is the last rookie playing in the playoffs, and is making a big difference for a team that needed every last difference-maker they’ve got. This rook, he’s got some, and is making some moves.


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