The Leap: Christian Braun flashes his next evolution as an offensive player

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Welcome to 'The Leap,' a Nuggets.com mini-series highlighting the in-postseason growth of some of Denver's cornerstone players.

For the fifth and final edition of 'The Leap,' we'll be looking at the next steps in Christian Braun's progression.

No player on Denver's roster is more primed for an increase in role and responsibility than Christian Braun.

Braun cracked Michael Malone's playoff rotation as a rookie. He then had numerous key performances and big moments during Denver's roaring run to an NBA title.

Bruce Brown's exit to Indiana opens up opportunities for Braun, who projects as the best option to replace Brown's perimeter defense next season. Braun's instinctual cutting makes him an optimal fill-in, as well, and his explosive fastbreak finishing is another area of overlap.

“I think there’s always a couple of people that don’t think you can step into that role,” Braun responded to the Denver Post's Sean Keeler when asked about trying to replace Brown's impact. “But I always end up rising to that occasion.”

The final step in 'CB's evolution will be a wholesale improvement when putting the ball on the floor, to the degree that he can run the occasion halfcourt set when Denver's reserves are on the floor.

He gave fans a glimpse at what that transformation may look like in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. There, Braun became the fourth rookie to drop at least 15 points in a Finals game in the last 20 years. His team won 109-94 to take a convincing 2-1 series lead.

Braun got himself going by religiously staying active as an off-ball player. His heady cutting was integral in breaking down Miami's 1-3-1 zone defense, which we wrote about extensively back in June. Plays that involved Braun cutting produced 1.56 points per possession in the regular season, good for the 93rd percentile. Doing damage this way was nothing new for the rookie despite it being on the biggest stage.

Braun also graded out well as a transition player in the regular season and generated 1.25 points per transition possession, a 75th percentile rating. He had one especially imposing fastbreak finish in which he went head-to-head with one of the strongest players in the NBA and won by moving Jimmy Butler out of the way for a floating finish.

It was encouraging to see Braun's most polished NBA skills—cutting and scoring in transition—translate to the biggest stage. No doubt.

But there were three plays, in particular, that should have Nuggets fans especially excited about the next evolution of Braun's game.

The first of which occurred in the second quarter. Braun flew off a dribble pitch from Nikola Jokić, took three dribbles, and finished at the rim past Duncan Robinson. It may look like a routine play, but the 22-year-old may see more of these types of reps next season.

Jokić is one of the best screeners in the entire NBA. He's also a more-than-legit three-level scorer who can stroke three-pointers, score among the best in the midrange, and put up an endless supply of buckets around the basket with his all-time post-up skillset. Altogether, it makes him one of the best roll men and handoff hubs in the entire league despite not really being a high-flyer who can cram home alley-oop dunks.

It's easy to play with an offensive player of that caliber, especially when handling the ball. Funny enough, playing alongside Jokić helped Brown improve as a halfcourt player en route to securing a $45 million payday this offseason.

Brown saw his pick-and-roll ballhandling improve fairly linearly over the course of the 2022-23 season as he acclimated to Jokić's game; his PnR efficiency jumped by 39 points per 100 possessions from the regular season to the postseason, the difference between the 19th percentile and the 83rd percentile.

Who's to say that playing alongside The Joker couldn't provoke a similar improvement in Braun's game? The University of Kansas alum is certainly preparing for that type of advancement this offseason, working specifically on his game as a ballhandler.

"I mean, the work has already started. Just doing certain things to expand my game, doing certain things to be a better ballhandler, secondary ballhandler,” Braun told Peeler in July. "With Bruce being gone, I’m gonna have more opportunities like that. I think I’m prepared for that. I mean, that’s just part of your whole career — you take a step up there to (get) here.”

Improving as a ballhandler will help Braun in the rare instances that he's asked to size up an opponent and isolate. In the fourth quarter of Game 3, Braun took on the challenge and zoomed past Caleb Martin, which warped Miami's zone and opened up space for Jokić to swish a short-range jumper.

One minute later, Braun once again put the ball on the floor with confidence and dished to Jokić. This time, however, he began the possession by spotting up in the corner and then selling a super-sweet pump-fake to send Butler flying. From there, he put his head down and knifed towards the cup.

Plays like this can become a regular part of his arsenal should he continue to improve as a three-point shooter, particularly from the corners. Braun averaged a very solid 35.4 percent three-point percentage in the regular season. He saw that percentage dip in the playoffs, but that's understandable given that it was his first-ever postseason.

Three-point shooting is one of the many skills that Braun has been working on this offseason.

"My overall game," said Braun to Peel. "Whether it’s catch-and-shoot, whether it’s hitting free throws this year, things like that, just focus on my game."

Filling Brown's shoes won't be easy. He's one of the most versatile and malleable role players in the entire league that affects both sides of the floor in multiple ways. There's a reason he's now making $22 million annually.

But 'CB' feels like as good of a candidate as there is to do a perfunctory job as Bruce Brown 2.0. All the 22-year-old has done is exceed expectations in his very short NBA career, en route to making history as a rookie in the Finals. He's ready for whatever comes next.

"I want that challenge. I want a bigger role and I think everybody wants a bigger role. But the fact that the Nuggets show confidence in me and our young guys to come in and take over that role and make that next step means a lot to me," Braun told the Post. "And obviously, I’m going to prove them right.”