20Q: Will Christian Braun or Davon Reed earn the backup small forward spot?

Apr 7, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Davon Reed (9) controls the ball as Memphis Grizzlies guard John Konchar (46) guards in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 41 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 8: Christian Braun or Davon Reed?

When the Denver Nuggets take the floor in Utah on October 19th, many of the rotation spots are guaranteed to be different than how Denver finished the season.

Sure, Nikola Jokić is the same, as are Aaron Gordon and (likely) Bones Hyland. Every other position will probably feature a change. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. should be taking over their starting spots again. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will join them, while Bruce Brown joins the second unit. Jeff Green likely moves to the bench, and one of Zeke Nnaji or DeAndre Jordan will fill the other frontcourt spot.

Basically, the Nuggets are flipping over seven rotation spots from last year to this year. That’s a lot of turnover. A lot of new faces in different places. Some of the faces are familiar, but it’s clear that outside of Jokić and Murray reuniting, the Nuggets won’t get a lot of points on continuity this year.

The final position in the rotation isn’t really much of a continuity battle either: backup small forward.

This is an important position for the Nuggets to fill. With Michael Porter Jr. likely on a rest/injury management schedule heading into the season, there will be times when the small forward spot becomes Denver’s most pivotal. While Bruce Brown is likely to fill in at the starting unit, the backup small forward will still be prevalent and likely see an expanded role in those situations.

The two main candidates to play backup small forward: Davon Reed and Christian Braun.

Davon Reed played 668 minutes last season in a Nuggets uniform, a total of 48 games averaging 4.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. Of course, it’s more minutes than the zero rookie Christian Braun played. The overall lack of experience at the position makes this a relatively open competition, though Reed’s time on the roster last season will give him the edge. Both players could contribute this season, but just one of them will get the job at the outset.

The decision between Reed and Braun appears to be Denver’s primary position battle hanging into training camp. Sure, Ish Smith, Vlatko Čančar, and DeAndre Jordan may also push for time consistently, but backup small forward is still likely to go to one of Reed or Braun. Both are complementary options, possessing different skill sets that can be utilized to help win games in different ways.

Davon Reed

Reed is a versatile offensive player and the much stronger shooter of the two. At 27 years old, Reed understands how to set himself up for shot attempts, play within the flow of the offense as an off-ball option, and convert those opportunities into points. Reed maintained a 50.3 FG% and 43.0 3P% throughout the season for Denver, making multiple three-pointers in 11 of his 48 games. He’s not a high volume shooter, but he converts at a high rate when he gets the opportunity to do so.

 

 

In a form of interesting symmetry, Reed had a positive plus-minus in 21 games and a negative plus-minus in 21 games. His overall plus-minus was minus-26 though, highlighting that when Denver’s bench was bad, it was truly bad last season.

Reed is certainly a dependent player though, based on the number of shots set up for him by others. Still, he’s good. He had some good offensive and defensive moments last season. The only reason he didn’t play in the playoffs was because he was on a two-way contract, not because he didn’t deserve to play.

Reed is more likely to help Bones Hyland with offensive responsibilities than Braun is at this stage in Braun’s career. Bones is operating under a lot of pressure heading into the season, and the Nuggets need to make sure the bench is in a good place. While Reed may not be quite the defender that Braun projects to be, his ability to convert on open looks should give Bones and co. plenty of space to operate and run offense.

In addition, Reed has also shown some off-the-dribble scoring capability.

Reed actually averaged a 61.2 eFG% on pull-up jumpers last season, including both twos and threes. He was just 6-of-17 on threes (35.3%) but an absurd 21-of-32 on twos (65.6%).

Due to his overall scoring profile, Reed should have the inside track on the competition for backup small forward. It’s possible that the Nuggets choose to play a more defensive skill set in Braun, but with Bruce Brown already a defense-first option in Denver’s perimeter rotation, don’t be surprised to see Reed out there as well.

Christian Braun

On the other side, Christian Braun has yet to play a minute in the NBA. Though Braun’s skill set is very projectable, the Nuggets simply don’t know how Braun will respond to playing NBA minutes for the first time. He could be better than they ever imagined, or he could be horrible. Time will tell.

What the Nuggets think they have is an elite role player.

Braun did all of the little things in college. He hustled in transition, made plays for others, cut to the basket off-ball, and often served as an emotional engine for the Kansas Jayhawks in his three years there.

More than anything though, Braun sat down and played some serious defense, which translated to summer league very well.

Defense, especially 1-on-1 defense, was always going to be Braun’s most translatable skill from college. Despite being 6’7″, Braun has quick hips and can pivot side to side, turning with the offensive player’s moves in a fluid motion. His abilities to stick with opposing players and timing to properly contest shots will both be valuable for a Nuggets team that has consistently struggled with 1-on-1 defense. Gary Harris was Denver’s last consistent 1-on-1 defender on the perimeter, but Braun projects to be similarly impactful on that end.

The biggest questions for Braun revolve around the offensive side of the ball. At summer league, Braun shot just 3-of-24 (12.5%) from three-point range during summer league, a small sample size to be clear but certainly something to monitor. Braun was a career 37.8% three-point shooter in college, so it’s probably not a major concern. Still, we will see whether his shooting comes along at the next level or not.

More concerning though is Braun’s ability to create off the dribble for himself and others. Braun is a solid passer with good floor vision, but his ability to execute those plays with a live dribble left a lot to be desired this summer. With Braun unlikely to share the floor with Jokić consistently, he will have to capably find his own shot at times if he wants to play consistent bench minutes. Perhaps his ball handling will show some development heading into the season. Perhaps it will take longer than that.

While Reed is certainly the safer option, Braun represents Denver’s best chance to insulate Denver’s stars entirely with players that can guard. Even if the offense takes a bit of a hit, the Nuggets need to know heading into a playoff series that Braun can execute the defensive game plan. If he can, the offense becomes less of an issue given the presence of Jokić, Murray, and Porter. Insulating those three (plus Bones) with plus defenders at every position would go a long way in making the Nuggets more viable as a championship contender. Michael Malone knows that just as much as anybody, which is why Braun should get an opportunity to win the job out of camp.


Verdict

The Nuggets have to figure out the bench this season, at least to the point where the minutes without Jokić aren’t consistently losing the Nuggets games. Some staggering will be involved with Murray and Porter, which likely takes both Reed and Braun off the court anyway. Still, at least one of those two is going to have to figure out how to be impactful in a way that makes the team better.

Most likely, Malone will go with Davon Reed as the backup small forward. It’s difficult to pass over a veteran and give their rotation spot to a rookie because of the locker room dynamics. Malone can always go to Braun if the initial plan doesn’t work.

Give Denver’s likely rest schedule for Porter as well as any other injuries that could occur to wing players, both Reed and Braun are likely to see time in the rotation. At times, they will play together, which should provide a nice complement of offensive and defensive skillsets. Both can be helpful to Denver’s chances of winning.

In the end though, only one is likely to see consistent time in the playoffs. There are reasons why it could be either player, and time will tell whether Reed or Braun is best suited to play the most important minutes of the season.

Let the battle commence.

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