At first glance on the basketball court, there may not seem to be a whole lot in common between Denver Nuggets rookie Christian Braun, a defensive wing known for his toughness, athleticism and hustle, and his second-year teammate Bones Hyland, a long-range sharpshooting guard who’s a hooper to the core.
But one trait which it’s looking increasingly likely that they share is that both may ultimately prove to have a substantially higher on-court value in their NBA careers than the late first round position of the draft picks they were chosen with might suggest.
Simply put, the Nuggets may have landed themselves significant draft steals in two consecutive years.
Hyland was selected with the 26th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft after an impressive two-year run with the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, and upon joining the Nuggets, wasted little time in quickly becoming a beloved fan favorite with both his infectious personality and the positive on-court impact he created for Denver as a rookie, especially flourishing after taking over backup point guard duties midway through the season.
Braun, drafted with the 21st pick in June, and now just three games into his professional NBA career, is already making a significant mark for Denver, particularly on the defensive end, and has done so sooner than many expected even considering the championship pedigree he earned earlier this year with the Kansas University Jayhawks.
Before being drafted, both players were projected by most prominent draft analysts to be picked in the late-first or early-second round, and both were indeed eventually selected in the 20s, near the upper end of that range. But certainly in the case of Hyland (with a much larger sample of games at this point), there’s a strong case to be made that he in actuality is at minimum a late-lottery caliber talent who merited (but did not receive) on of those coveted NBA draft green room invitations.
And early as it is, now Braun as well is showing signs that he might have more fittingly been drafted higher than he actually was.
During last year’s preseason, when Bones Hyland first started showing for the Nuggets the flashes of his upside that he would later more fully demonstrate in higher-leverage situations, I wrote for Forbes that he looked like he just might be one of the big steals of the 2021 draft.
And based on the results from a collection of mock 2021 “redrafts” in which draft analysts go through the process of re-selecting the class in the order they “should have” been chosen in retrospect, Hyland has indeed performed at a level where he’s now esteemed as a significantly higher quality player than the 26th pick he was actually taken with.
As the chart above shows, and average of five different 2021 redrafts lands Hyland on the cusp of lottery pick territory, just over 11 spots above his true draft position. This puts him squarely in “draft steal” territory, a status well-earned by his commendable play as a rookie which earned him a larger role this season.
And while it’s far too soon to do a similar re-draft exercise with the 2022 class, the nascent indications of the direction Braun’s developmental track is heading are nearly all pointing up in meaningful ways, and his level of NBA-readiness seems to be off the charts, even if a few youthful mistakes show up here and there.
“Christian Braun is a rookie who is growing up pretty quickly in this league,” head coach Michael Malone said after Denver’s recent home-opening win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “It’s great to see him step in and shoot those shots with confidence.”
Those shots Malone refers to were a trio of three-pointers in Braun’s second-half stint against OKC, the first of which was his first made three in the NBA, but all of which were critical in helping the Nuggets stay afloat in what ended up being an uncomfortably close game.
“They made good passes, and [OKC] played off of me,” Braun said after the game. “Jok [Nikola Jokic] had skips to the corner. When Jok hits you with them skip passes, you have to shoot them.”
Malone expanded on how he had urged Braun to keep shooting: “When he came out, I said, ‘listen, make or miss, you have to take that shot because it’s a good shot and you work your ass off every day.’”
“And tonight, he stepped in with great confidence and that was fun to watch,” Malone added.
In addition to the value of Braun hitting his shots, something which will only help to solidify his place in Denver’s rotation, he has perhaps just as importantly very quickly begun earning the trust of back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic, which is critically essential for any player he shares the court with, as well as Malone and seasoned veterans like Jeff Green.
A huge part of gaining that trust from his teammates and coaches is just how smart, fundamentally sound, and within-the-flow Braun has proven to play nearly from moment one.
In the sequences below, for example, there are about 20 things he just “does right” as these plays unfold, from consistently feeding the ball to Jokic in the post, to getting straight to his (correct) spots on the floor, to denying the ball to his defensive assignment at the perimeter, to monitoring the passing lanes for the steal, to selflessly passing up worse shots to create better ones for his teammates, and much more, all in the span of about two minutes of playing time.
Although both Malone and Jokic have reputations (whether fairly earned or not) for having confidence issues with younger, less-experienced players, it surely seems they have both already opened the door to let Braun into their circle of trust.
In Malone’s case, this is in no small part because of Braun’s relentless effort, hustle and (importantly) effectiveness on the defensive end of the court, which was on full display in Denver’s hard-earned road win at the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
The fact that Malone entrusted Braun with guarding not only microwave scorer (and sometimes Nuggets-killer) Jordan Poole, but also two of the greatest shooters in NBA history in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, speaks volumes about just how much faith he has in the rookie.
Last season, from January 28 onward when he took over the role as the Nuggets’ full-time backup point guard, Hyland averaged 11.9 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists with 2.1 made three-pointers on a .392 percentage from deep on his way to being named to the NBA All-Rookie second team.
Because so much of Braun’s impact and effectiveness on the court shows up more in the eye test than on the stat sheet, it’s hard to know at this early stage whether he will get the same kind of recognition as Hyland even if he qualitatively has just as good of a rookie season.
But one of my 2022-23 Nuggets predictions was that Braun would pass fellow wing Davon Reed in Denver’s rotation by the All-Star break, and judging by their minutes totals so far (41 and 19, respectively), he’s already ahead of schedule in cementing a regular spot. And assuming that continues, which is reasonable based on just how well he’s started his young NBA career, Braun should have every opportunity to prove that he, like Bones, was yet another Denver Nuggets draft steal.