Around this time every year, the NBA Finals videos start playing and inevitably land on the most enduring moment of the 1995 Finals. The soundbite that reminds every Orlando Magic fan of how close the team was and yet how far they still were.
Rudy Tomjanovich in his postgame interview on the stage while accepting the Houston Rockets’ second title following a sweep in that series, proclaimed no one should “ever question the heart of a champion.”
As stomach-churning as it might be to remember that statement and that feeling, it feels more poignant than ever. The Golden State Warriors reminded everyone how valuable their championship experience was — and they continue to remind them as they keep showing the receipts of those who doubted them.
It is a truth that teams want winning players. They want players who have shown they can contribute to a winning team. College recruiters put special focus on bringing in kids who are part of winning teams. The thinking is they can easily integrate with and help a winning team because it has already been part of their lives and playing careers.
It is still pretty shocking how short the list is of players who have won both an NCAA Tournament title and an NBA title. That is probably more a statement of how difficult it is to win the six games it takes to win in the volatile NCAA Tournament.
But how much is success in the tournament or in conference tournaments or as conference championships matter? What does that do and what does that tell us about prospects and what they can bring to the NBA? Should some of them get a boost for winning a title?
In other words, part of the draft evaluation for evaluators is just what Tomjanovich talked about that day back in 1995: What is the value of a heart of a champion?
Kansas’ Christian Braun made his worth known in helping the Jayhawks win the title and that has helped Braun rise to the top and into the conversation for the first round.
Obviously, it is not so simple. The NCAA Tournament can be quite random. There is a reason the NBA is not a single-elimination tournament.
But what does that mean for a player like Christian Braun or Ochai Agbaji from Kansas? Agbaji, the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, will likely go in the lottery. Braun likely pushed himself into the first-round conversation simply because he has a ring on his finger.
His play was certainly a big contributor to the Jayhawks’ championship run.
Braun is a 6-foot-6 guard with three years of college experience at Kansas. That time included a Big 12 regular-season title (and a 17-1 record) his freshman year, when he averaged 18.4 minutes per game off the bench, and a Big 12 regular-season and tournament title last year. Kansas always does a lot of winning.
Braun improved every season in Kansas, averaging 14.1 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game with shooting splits of 49.5/38.6/73.3. Braun is a career 37.8-percent 3-point shooter.
That at least suggests some of the things he can provide. The shooting numbers especially will get attention as that is so important for wing players in the league. The free throw percentage is the only concern, but he shot only 3.4 attempts per game.
Braun’s game shows the do-whatever-is-needed aspect of a role player that should help him comfortably fit in with wherever he lands in the NBA. This is exactly what you want to see from a late first-round pick.
Need Braun to be a spot-up shooter? He can do that. He made four 3-pointers in the first-round win over Texas Southern and he had three triples against Oklahoma and Kansas State.
Need Braun to get to the foul line and push the issue? Sure, he can do that. He made 9 of 10 free throws in a win over St. John’s and 8 of 9 in a conference tournament win over Texas Tech.
Need him to be your primary scorer? He has done that occasionally too. Braun scored 31 in a win over St. John’s and 22 in a win over Nevada.
Braun is a solid leaper who can get up above the basket on breakaways and is a good enough defender to poke away the ball and set himself up that way.
Even in the half-court, Braun can be extremely crafty getting to the basket and finishing with some flourish around the rim. Braun leverages his know-how well to take advantage of his skills and put defenses in spots he likes. He rarely plays outside of himself.
His most NBA-ready skill will be his spot-up shooting. He was deadly when Kansas was able to work the ball around to him in rotations. He should be able to hold his own as a 3-and-D wing.
Braun showed lots of ability to step in and do what his team needed. That is “the heart of a champion.”
But those are the upper bounds of his play. What makes Braun valuable is his consistency and his level. He can be used however a team needs him and he is malleable that way. But it should be noted that it is limiting.
Braun, for as good of a shooter as he looked, does have concerns in that department. His free throw shooting percentage is solid but not spectacular by any means. That is a better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting and it should raise some concerns that he had some inconsistent games from the line.
Further, his shot motion is a bit slow. He appears to release his shot near his chest. And while that was enough for him to get his shot off in college on a very talented Kansas team, the question will remain whether he can get that off at the pro level.
The nail in his coffin as far as the Orlando Magic are concerned might well be his size. He measured at 6-foot-7 with shoes at the NBA Draft Combine. But he only measured with a 6-foot-6.5 wing span. It is very rare for the Magic to target a player without a positive wingspan (insert your Tyler Herro concerns here).
On that note, Braun was not nearly the shooter off movement that Herro was at Kentucky. It does not feel like the Magic are missing the next ace scorer.
Despite this concern about his size, Braun played four positions and was one of Kansas’ best defenders, rebounders and even shot blockers. That is a good thing. He makes up for his lack of size with plenty of hustle (I am trying to avoid coded language, but that is the only word I can think of).
What Braun feels like at the NBA level is a good spot-up shooter with defensive ability. How much of either is a question more about a team’s building philosophy than anything else.
And that gets back to the main question at bar: How much stock does someone put into someone who was so important to winning a championship? How important is winning and knowing how to win to a prospect’s evaluation?
At the end of the day, what matters most is how a player plays n the court.
Braun was a good supporting player on a pretty loaded roster. He found his spots and proved to be a good outlet for Kansas’ drivers. That is likely how Braun will be used early. He will need others to set him up and he will have to be a knock-down shooter to find success.
He will have to work even harder to be the same defensive presence that made him so successful and Kansas and such a key cog to a national championship team.
In that sense, Braun does get the benefit of winning a title. Because of that title, Braun’s best attributes came to the forefront and he showed he is willing to do what his team needs him to do to win. That is ultimately all anyone wants to know.