Like many who grew up in the 90s and were avid sports fans, I loved to play sports related video games as a kid and well on into my adulthood (I still get the itch every now and again but who has the time am I right?). The best part was the invention of Franchise Mode, a game mode where you could essentially become the all powerful god of your franchise and make every decision from where you were going to relocate the team all the way down to which play your third string point guard was going to call in the last 15 seconds of the first quarter in a preseason game. You’d start by jettisoning every single high priced contract on the roster for as many draft picks as you could get while your team put up a sub 20% winning percentage for a couple years and you manipulated the game mode’s broken scouting system to know every single prospect who was going to pan out to be a superstar. You’d simulate through that whole rebuild in about 30 minutes and boom, your ready made dynasty ran through the league while you played the important games and dominated. You’d make it all the way to the finals, hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, win every single regular season award and hit the end of the year feeling incredibly accomplished about your successful rebuild of the Kentucky Colonels…and then the game cycled to the next season and you started all over again playing grind it out games in November. If you’re like me, this is essentially where the franchise died as I moved on to some other thing to do with my free time. It’s a classic example of the Sophomore Slump.

You come off that high of accomplishing something after a year (or a single Sunday in the case of the video game franchise) of dedication and what sometimes feels like immediately after that you’re right back at the starting point and having to do it all over again. On the actual basketball court and not the digital one you add in the intense physical demands of an NBA season and it’s easy to see why the concept of a sophomore slump is often bandied around by fans and pundits alike as a true detriment to many in their NBA career. A college basketball season in it’s entirety from opening night to the end of a postseason run is going to land somewhere between 30 and 40 games. It starts early to mid November and wraps up with the National Championship game in early April. Compare that to an 82 game regular season in the NBA that runs from late October all the way until the NBA Finals finish in mid to late June and it’s easy to see why there is some credence lent to the idea that a sophomore slump can be very real in the NBA. The Denver Nuggets have two sophomores on their roster but only one, Christian Braun, played regular minutes throughout his rookie season. After doing something quite rare and being a key part of a title run as a rookie, Braun’s sophomore season has been quieter and his coach acknowledged his struggles this week. Is it fair to say he is experiencing a sophomore slump?

The place that jumps out the most for Braun’s struggles is shooting. A combination of being asked to do more on the offense, particularly early in the season while Jamal Murray was out of the lineup, and no longer being an unknown to NBA defenses like he was as a rookie could be to blame for the dip in his shooting percentage. He’s actually shooting a higher percentage from three, though only by a tiny margin, however his three point shooting from the corners has suffered greatly, the left corner in particular where he has gone from 46.2% last season on 26 attempts to a dreadful 13.3% so far this year on 15 attempts. To match last season Braun will need to hit ten of his next eleven threes from the left corner. On the right corner he’s better, 33% on 12 attempts which is an improvement over his 28% on 14 attempts last season but his left corner shooting drags his overall percentage from the corners down so much that he’s shooting just 22% combined from those locations whereas last season he was a solid 40%. Beyond the corner threes he’s also struggled with his finishing. He is shooting just under 33% at the rim and 29% from just inside the restricted area out to ten feet compared to being 36% and 42% respectively from those areas last season. While the corner threes could be a result of physical fatigue, the mid range game is more likely to be a result of defenses understanding Christian’s game better. He’s taking more attempts from that restricted area out range than he is at the rim this season and that might be indicative of defenses stopping him before he can get to the rim. His eurostep in particular seems less effective in delivering a shot at the rim, often times leaving Braun to take a floater from three to four feet away because his defender is anticipating the move.


Shooting isn’t the be all and end ell though and it shouldn’t alone constitute whether or not Braun is in the proverbial sophomore slump. For starters, he is asked to do more as a playmaker for the Nuggets now that Bruce Brown plays elsewhere. Again, this was particularly the case when Jamal was hurt and therefore fellow bench playmaker Reggie Jackson was playing much more with the starting unit. It’s resulted in a higher usage rate for Braun and he’s translated that into being a better playmaker for his teammates. His assists per 36 minutes and assist % are up and he’s able to work more within the flow of the offense. In a counterpunch to defenses expecting him to drive the lane more often than not, we’ve seen more and more of Christian dribbling back out and looking to find the next cutter or open shooter. Since Murray’s return Christian hasn’t had as large of a playmaking role but it’s important to remember he has that in his game and that was one of the reasons coach Michael Malone was able to ultimately forego playing a traditional backup point while Jamal was out with his hamstring injury.

Braun continues to bring his classic defense as well. Sometimes his efforts on that end this season have been overshadowed with the play of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Peyton Watson but we still continue to see Christian making plays on that end of the court. Malone often goes to a backcourt pairing of Murray and Jackson while Nikola Jokic gets a rest and Braun is generally the other player on the wings with them in those scenarios. That leaves him facing the top scoring wing from the opposition and depending on the opponents rotations that can end up being the best scorer on the other team. It doesn’t happen every game but he’s shown that even when facing the NBA’s premier scorers he’s able to hang tough as a defender. Denver also has a vested interest in him continuing to grow and develop on that end. KCP has shown how much a premier wing defender in the starting lineup can elevate a team, but he’s also potentially (most likely) going to be a free agent at the end of the season and just like Bruce, he may come at a price that is more than the Nuggets can afford. In that scenario Christian is the natural successor and his defense will be where Denver will need him the most.


If you’re talking strictly shooting, than you can make the assertion that Braun is in a “sophomore slump” but the argument is much more complex than that, especially for a player who isn’t needed as a scorer first and foremost in Denver’s rotation. However, we’ve also seen that defensive wings who struggle with their shot end up being a liability that bogs down Denver’s offense. For Christian to fully reach his potential the Nuggets will need him to get back to being the threat from the corners and finishing at the rim that he was last season. Shooting as poorly as he is from the corners this season feels much more likely to be the anomaly than the norm given how well he’s shot it over his basketball career. While he may be struggling to finish against NBA defenders more this season that’s also a fairly natural progression of an NBA player and it will be up to him to adjust to the adjustment. We’ve seen some of that already with his playmaking and some of his other moves attacking the basket like the spin move he’s becoming fond of. Time will tell if he can reach all that potential and become a starter in Denver’s rotation but whether you believe he’s in a sophomore slump or not it’s probably to soon to start thinking about ruling out of the possibilities.