Winner: How Christian Braun went from state to world champion
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (KCTV) - Standing at the lectern at a season-ending banquet following a second consecutive state championship, former Blue Valley Northwest head basketball coach Ed Fritz went down the Huskies roster, sharing insight of each player, their accomplishments and their futures.
Among those who Fritz pontificated about was Christian Braun. Having just completed his junior season, Braun held two Division 1 offers with a summer of AAU and a senior season still to be played.
“Christian is going to be the best player to come through Northwest,” Fritz predicted of the guard’s career trajectory toward a crowd of players and family.
The prophecy from the Hall-of-Fame coach came following the 2017-18 season, which saw BVNW win its fourth Kansas 6A state championship in school history.
“And we all looked at each other like this dude is crazy,” said Max Johnson, a 2018 BVNW graduate and teammate of Braun. “We were like, ‘there’s no way’ he’s talking about (Christian) like that. Is this crazy? And it turns out he actually is (the best).”
After winning the NBA title as a rookie a week ago, Braun joined a distinguished group of basketball lore that includes the likes of Bill Russell and Magic Johnson. When the Denver Nuggets wrapped up the NBA Finals with a 94-89 Game 5 win over the Miami Heat, he became just the fifth player in basketball history to win an NBA title in the immediate year following an NCAA championship.
Appearing in 19 of 20 playoff games for the Nuggets, Braun averaged 13 minutes per game this playoffs. In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the 6-foot-7 wing from Kansas scored a playoff career-high 15 points, shooting 7-for-8 from the floor during a series-changing win.
“I can’t really fail if I go out there and play hard,” said Braun. “They don’t expect much from me on the offensive end, but expect me to go out there and give effort on defense, rebound, whatever it is, try to get extra possession for those guys to score. They trust me, and they put me in the right spots, and all I’ve got to do is lay a ball in and get a steal.
“My job is pretty easy, and those guys make me look pretty good.”
During the Nuggets’ clinching Game 5, Braun played 24 minutes, the most for him in any playoff game this season.
“There’s not too many rookies playing meaningful minutes in the NBA this time of year, and it speaks to Christian’s confidence,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “It speaks to him being a winner.”
A world championship with the Nuggets is Braun’s fifth time reaching the peak of his team’s sport in the last seven years.
Before the absurd run of winning began, Braun was a 5-foot-8 freshman walking the halls at Blue Valley Northwest. Seeking greater basketball competition levels after growing up in Burlington, Kansas, the Brauns decided to move to Overland Park, enrolling Christian and his older brother Parker -- who is set to play his final season of college basketball at KU -- at BVNW prior to the fall of 2015.
Early on during his time at BVNW, Braun walked into the school’s auxiliary gym with former BVNW star guard Clayton Custer, who’d returned home after one of his first few seasons of collegiate basketball.
“He was young and he hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet,” recalled Custer of a workout the two shared. “He was small, he was baby-faced.”
After beginning his collegiate career at Iowa State, Custer transferred to Loyola Chicago. There, he led the Ramblers to a Final Four appearance in 2018. In the auxiliary gym at BVNW, two of the greatest players in Kansas City high school basketball history competed.
“Obviously, he was really good,” said Custer, who now is an assistant coach at Loyola Chicago. “But he was 5′8″ and had all the guard skills. I knew he was going to be really good but I didn’t know that he’d end up being 6′7″ and grow into that size and skillset with his competitiveness.
“That’s why he’s doing what he’s doing and having so much success at (the NBA) level.”
As a freshman, Braun played exclusively on the junior varsity squad for the Huskies. By his sophomore year, he’d grown to just over 6 feet tall and taken on a small role off the bench, playing occasionally for a team that would go 22-3 en route to the 2017 6A state title.
“He was like the ninth man on our team,” said Fritz.
KSHSAA rules allow for JV players to get six quarters of play per night. Knowing Braun’s minutes during varsity games would be sparse, former BVNW JV coach Zach Harsch begged Fritz to let Braun play more at that level.
“We tried to get him as many minutes as we could,” Harsch explained of an agreed-upon strategy to let Braun play the entirety of the first and third quarter during JV games as a sophomore. “We would kind of abuse it. He was really smart with understanding if they were going under (ball screens), he could shoot a 3. If they were going over, he wasn’t laterally very quick but he was great with angles.
“But really, you would think he was some big scorer, but he averaged more assists probably than he did points because he was really obsessed with trying to get other guys involved.”
At the JV level, Braun was a steadying voice.
“Christian was kind of a second coach out there,” Harsch said. “He knew all of our sets of what we were running and he’d always know what the other team was running.”
Unafraid to make his voice heard, coaches recalled a sophomore Braun telling teammates what he saw from the bench during games.
“He’s never been shy about sharing his opinions on something,” Fritz said.
Sitting in the back of Lee’s Summit High School, Harsch recalls a turning point during Braun’s junior season. The Huskies had just lost 58-53 to Grandview, with crucial late turnovers leading BVNW to a 4-4 start to the season while Braun largely played an off-ball role.
“We were like ‘we’ve gotta get the ball in his hands,’” Harsch said.
After Braun moved into the point guard role, the Huskies won 17 straight games, winning by an average of 29.7 points per game -- and never less than 11 -- during the winning streak.
“Christian was the one that kept everything moving,” Harsch said. “When we empowered him by putting him in the point guard role -- you saw that leadership.”
As a senior, Braun developed into the Huskies’ leading scorer, powering the program to its best record in the three-year span and a third straight state championship.
“There were times in games where he’d come over and tell me something and it made perfect sense and I’d do it and it worked,” Fritz said. “You have very few players that do that. It seemed like when we got to the state tournament during timeouts and huddles he had more control than I did, which was great.”
At the AAU level, Braun’s basketball role followed a similar path to BVNW. According to MOKAN Elite director Drew Molitoris, Braun was an integral piece of his travel team off the bench until a teammate was late to practice once. Given an opening in the starting lineup as a result, he seized the opportunity.
“Circumstances or situations never dictated his effort or desire to win,” Molitoris explained. “That’s, I think, his greatest strength and most unique quality. Christian has just always had a consistency about him when he stepped in the gym whether it was practice, a championship game or a game you were going to win by 40. There was always a consistency with how he approached it and the effort that he gave.”
As the 127th-ranked player in the Class of 2019 according to 24/7 Sports composite rankings, Braun came in as the lowest-rated recruit in head coach Bill Self’s KU recruiting class.
“He wasn’t highly recruited and he wasn’t highly ranked,” said his mother Lisa Braun (nee Sandbothe). “Where he really blew up in my opinion was when he played for MOKAN at Peach Jam.”
Prior to the 2018 Peach Jam, Braun reportedly had four offers. After a lengthy run in that tournament, he received 13 more, with an offer from KU arriving at the end of August.
“He got to play on the biggest court at the highest level and he had a hell of a tournament,” Lisa said. “Then he blew up. His last four weeks of his last summer were incredible. That’s when people went, ‘huh, maybe this kid’s got something.’”
Fanfare surrounding Braun’s commitment to Kansas was almost nonexistent when it took place on Sept. 17, 2018. Rather than announcing his commitment in front of a host of Instagram Live viewers or with a dramatized hat selection, Braun sheepishly told his team sports classmates he’d be playing for the Jayhawks in the same BVNW aux gym he first worked out in as a scrawny freshman.
Moments after the commitment, Braun was back playing pickup basketball with his classmates.
Months later, he was named Mr. Kansas Basketball and Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year after averaging 27.8 points and 9.3 rebounds to win a third straight state title for the Huskies.
“What’s so different about him than other players is you could always see him take a step and improve and do something better,” Fritz said. “It just went on and on and didn’t just happen in high school. He goes to KU and it’s ‘oh, they just recruited a local guy. He’ll never play.’ Well, he ended up playing and doing a little bit his freshman year and sophomore year and by junior year he was pretty dang good.”
During his three seasons in Lawrence, Braun was a part of teams that won two Big 12 regular season championships, a Big 12 tournament and a national championship. He started 74 of 101 career games for the Jayhawks and eclipsed the career 1,000 points mark during the 2022 Final Four.
In a historic second-half comeback against North Carolina in the 2022 national championship game, Braun played all 40 minutes and had a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
“All he does is win,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last week. “His teams always find a way to win. It just goes to show you, you don’t have to score a lot of points to be a good player.”
As the Nuggets progressed through the playoffs, a malleable Braun displayed the versatility that led him to be the 21st overall selection in the 2022 NBA Draft. At various times this postseason, he guarded the opposing team’s best offensive weapon, including proverbial All-Stars Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and LeBron James.
“It’s weird because you play with those guys on 2K, and you grow up watching them,” said Johnson, who now lives in Denver and works in sales. “And then now he’s playing them. Of course, he’s maybe a little starstruck, but he’s just a competitor. To see him guard these guys and be fearless, I’m not surprised.”
Molitoris said the late success in the playoffs wasn’t fluky.
“He’s not having a good week right now,” he said. “This is who he is. That’s his DNA and his core.”
Following the aforementioned Game 3 performance, Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon called Braun a rare rookie. Two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic said he was the reason for winning the game. The praise toward the former Jayhawk great is just the latest in a long run of contributing.
No doubt remains as to the validity of Fritz’s statement from just over five years ago. Decorated with peaks of the high school, college and NBA levels, Braun is now one of the most distinguished players ever born in Kansas.
Dating back to his sophomore year at BVNW, Braun has compiled a 218-60 record, good for a .784 winning percentage. In all but one season, he’s either won a championship or had the season end while his team was ranked No. 1.
|Blue Valley Northwest||2016-17||22-3||Kansas 6A state championship|
|Blue Valley Northwest||2017-18||21-4||Kansas 6A state championship|
|Blue Valley Northwest||2018-19||23-2||Kansas 6A state championship|
|Kansas||2019-20||28-3||Big 12 regular season champs, AP No. 1 ranked team when COVID ended season|
|Kansas||2020-21||21-9||No. 3 seed in NCAA tournament|
|Kansas||2021-22||34-6||Big 12 regular season/tournament champs, NCAA national title|
|Denver Nuggets||2022-23||53-29 (16-4 playoffs)||NBA champion|
After some well-earned championship celebration, Braun is set to return to Overland Park in late June to help run what Fritz is calling “Champ Camp.” There, Braun will coach the youth of the area up for three days before moving on to his next season and the pursuit of his sixth title in eight years.
“There have been a lot of pinch me moments,” Lisa said. “I don’t think it’s sunk in. We haven’t had a lot of down time between the national title game and the draft and now this and Parker’s career coming to Kansas and Landon (a Nebraska-Omaha commit) doing his thing.
“We’ve been on the constant go, so we won’t curse the blessing.”
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