When it was announced that Bruce Brown would be departing this summer, Denver Nuggets fans around the world let out a collective groan.

Brown, playing on what was effectively a one-year “prove it” contract with the Nuggets during the 2022-23 season, absolutely proved his worth. In 80 regular season games, the Nuggets sixth man averaged 28.5 minutes per game, even starting 31 games in the process. Brown played the third most regular season minutes on the Nuggets roster behind starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and superstar center Nikola Jokić. In those minutes, Brown offered every bit of the versatility that was promised, playing equal parts point guard, shooting guard, and small forward. Within those roles, he ran the offense, screened for Jokić, slashed from the wing, and spotted up/cut from the corner. Brown also guarded multiple positions with effectiveness during that time.

It wasn’t until the playoffs though that Brown’s worth truly came into focus. While every Nuggets starter saw a minute increase with rotations cut down to size, Brown mostly stayed on the floor. His versatility afforded the Nuggets the opportunity to mix and match lineups when the starters rested without missing much. If the Nuggets needed more perimeter defense, Brown could slide to small forward for Michael Porter Jr. to rest. If the Nuggets needed to give Jamal Murray some minutes to rest, Brown could slide to point guard and run pick and roll when needed. If the Nuggets needed a different defender on the wing than Caldwell-Pope, in came Brown to be more physical at the point of attack.

In addition, Brown brought some true confidence and attitude to his position. He knew how good he and the Nuggets were, and he carried himself that way. The Nuggets didn’t see an extensive drop-off without Jokić on the floor in part due to Bruce Brown raising his game. Brown raised his levels so high that he earned a contract from the Indiana Pacers worth north of $20 million per year.

Now, it’s up to second-year wing Christian Braun to fill that entire void.

Or is it?

After losing Brown and Jeff Green, two of the three bench players in Denver’s playoff rotation, in free agency, the Nuggets are looking for Christian Braun to take a step forward. Braun had a strong rookie season, filling the exact role the Nuggets hoped he would play when general manager Calvin Booth selected the Kansas product in the 2022 NBA Draft. Averaging 15.5 minutes per game in the regular season and 13.0 minutes per game in the playoffs, Braun was a steady option at the back end of the Nuggets rotation. He offered athleticism, high IQ defense, and occasional offensive flashes as a slasher, floor spacer, and playmaker to keep opposing defenses honest.

And after filling a role in the 2022-23 playoff rotation, it’s only natural to expect more from Braun after a year of NBA level seasoning in the most pressure packed situations.

To put into perspective just how rare it is for a wing of Braun’s size to play legitimate minutes in a playoff rotation, here’s a list of like-sized players to play as much as Braun since the turn of the century:

The Nuggets felt comfortable enough with Braun to keep him on the floor throughout a championship run, and Braun acquitted himself on multiple occasions. His first playoff game involved him and Minnesota Timberwolves veteran Kyle Anderson going at it. Braun never backed down and showed the poise needed in that moment. The next series against the Phoenix Suns involved great defense from Braun on Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. The two Suns stars combined to shoot 12-of-28 from the field (42.9 FG%) against the rookie, which helped Denver win the ever important mid-range math problem.

The Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers was when Braun struggled the most, as there wasn’t a great wing option for Braun to consistently guard with superstar forward LeBron James being too big and too savvy for the rookie. As a result, Braun played just 20 total minutes in the four-game sweep, basically racking up a DNP-CD in Game 4. It’s that series that should have Nuggets fans nervous about Braun playing extended minutes off the bench going forward.

Of course, Braun then averaged 16.3 minutes per game off the bench in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, finding more friendly matchups against a guard/wing heavy roster. Braun excelled in most of the games, but he had a true breakout in Game 3 as a slasher/cutter, scoring 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting and proving he belonged on the floor. Braun did his job to the utmost in the Finals, and that should encourage Nuggets fans as much as the previous series should give fans pause.

So, should the Nuggets expect more from Braun? Absolutely. It’s up to the now second-year wing to figure out what more he can do for a Nuggets roster that lost some important veteran depth this off-season. Braun can definitely do more too. In his final season at Kansas, the 6’7″ wing averaged 14.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assists, along with nearly a steal and a block per game. In the right circumstances, Braun can fill up the stat sheet in a similar way to Bruce Brown as a playmaker, slasher, and defender. Braun also shot 37.8% from three-point range for his college career, so there’s probably a bit more shotmaking to tap into going forward.

Expecting Braun to put it all together by next season would be folly though. Development takes time, and more importantly, repetition. The Nuggets will need Braun to go through the trials and tribulations next season in ways that he didn’t have to as a rookie. Braun averaged just 1.9 drives per game in the regular season and 1.1 per game in the playoffs. That’s a void that Bruce Brown is leaving, and Braun will be expected to fill it in part.

The Nuggets did re-sign Reggie Jackson, and it’s expected that the 33-year-old point guard will be asked to run backup point guard out of the gate. Jackson will operate most of the on-ball duties for the second unit, but Braun will be required to improve as a ball handler too. It’s expected of all but the top defensive specialists to be able to run some pick and roll in a pinch. Braun was the scorer in a total of just 17 pick and rolls in 76 games played last season, according to Second Spectrum. Braun shot 2-of-12 on those possessions. That can’t happen again, and it won’t.

Braun will also take on just about every top defensive assignment at the guard spot. He, Justin Holiday (15,000 career minutes played), and Peyton Watson (186 career minutes played) are likely to be the top perimeter defense options off the bench, and the Nuggets will want Braun to shoulder those defensive burdens so starters like Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Porter, and Aaron Gordon don’t always have to guard the top players. If Braun can prove that last year’s defensive season wasn’t a fluke and continue guarding the opposition well, then there will certainly be more minutes heading Braun’s way.

In projecting next season’s Nuggets rotation, Braun is likely to average in between 20 and 24 minutes per game off the bench as currently constructed. He’s the bridge player in much the same way that Brown was last season. In a full strength rotation don’t expect Braun to play much more than about 22 minutes, because the Nuggets starters will all be at around 30 minutes or more. When one of those starters sits out though, especially Caldwell-Pope or Porter Jr., expect Braun to slide into the starting lineup and fill a 30+ minute role. His adaptability will aid that process as he shapes his game to what the Nuggets are expecting of him. Whether he’s starting at shooting guard and defending a lead ball handler or starting at small forward and slashing off of dribble handoffs, Braun will be asked to do more.

If the Nuggets want to be as successful as they were last season, the easiest way to get there is for Christian Braun to take a leap. Whether he will remains to be seen, but there’s little reason to doubt his capabilities at this point. The all important question remains: will the leap happen sooner or later?