Bruce Brown’s big bet on himself is about to pay off after NBA Finals

As Bruce Brown Jr. did multiple dribble moves, stepped back and shot a three-pointer, Nikola Jokic threw his hands in the air in confusion; a reaction that likely many Denver Nuggets fans watching also had.

It was the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals. The Nuggets were up by 14 with a little over a minute remaining, a time when typically players are passing and wasting time from the clock. But Brown, the Nuggets guard known for everything except for his three-point shooting, was attempting a shot reserved mostly for the Nuggets stars.

But it went in, and Jokic waved his towel in celebration, like he knew that would happen all along.

“I wanted to punch him,” Jokic deadpanned, “but when he made it, I was so happy.”

It was that kind of night for Brown in Game 4, where he scored 11 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter to seal the win for the Nuggets. It was his second-highest-scoring game in the playoffs, where Brown proved to be one of the Nuggets’ most important players.

As the Nuggets won their first championship in franchise history on Monday night, Brown secured an offensive rebound and scored the layup to give the Nuggets a one-point lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. And it was Brown who hit the game’s final free throws to effectively seal the win. On a team whose star player in Jokic was announced as a second round pick while a Taco Bell commercial played during ESPN’s broadcast of the NBA Draft in 2014, Brown is another player on the Nuggets who soared to heights many didn’t expect.

After the Nuggets finish celebrating their championship, Brown — who will be a free agent this summer if he opts out of his contract — will likely have some more celebrating to do. Brown should be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason, in line for a significant payday.

“We’re excited for him because he’s going to get paid,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said after Game 5. He added: “He was amazing for us all in the playoffs.”

Brown did his own post-victory press conference with the Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon sitting next to him. Gordon, who had a champagne bottle sitting next to him that he had clearly taken at least a few sips from, also let everyone know that Brown will be a lot richer soon.

“He’s finna get paid. He’s finna get paid; stop playing,” Gordon said while he and Brown laughed. “My man finna get a bag.”

The journey for Brown to the NBA became a reality at the University of Miami in 2016, where he spent two seasons before entering the NBA Draft.

At Miami, Brown, 6-foot-4, was used sometimes as a ball handler, a slasher, or an undersized power forward. Brown sought out playing in those different roles, Chris Caputo, an assistant coach on that team, remembers, seemingly as a way to make himself more appealing to pro teams.

“We were encouraged by the idea that he could do those things,” said Caputo, who is now the head coach at George Washington.

Brown’s instinct was correct, as he has emerged as one of the more versatile role players in the league, willing to rebound, defend, ball handle, and do just about whatever the team he is on needs from him that night.

Still, it is somewhat surprising whenever Brown has a scoring outburst like he did in Game 4. After that game, the Heat’s Coach Erik Spoelstra called Brown’s night a “frustrating” part of the game

“You’re expecting it to be Murray or somebody else,” Spoelstra said.

“Can I say that I envisioned him scoring 11 points on the road in Game 4 of the Finals? I can’t say that,” Nuggets coach Micahel Malone said of Brown’s fourth-quarter scoring that same night. He added: “And the one thing I know about Bruce, I know he went to college down here, but he’s not afraid. We got a lot of guys that have a quiet toughness about them, and Bruce Brown is definitely one that embodies that.”

For Caputo, the high-scoring games surprise him to some degree, but they are not as shocking as they might be for others. Caputo has seen that version of Brown before. Caputo pointed to Brown’s first year at Miami when he scored 30 points against the University of North Carolina, who played in the national championship that season, and when he scored 25 points against Duke University less than a month later.

“So I don’t think it was beyond the realm of belief to think that he could become a guy who could do these things,” Caputo said.

Brown, who just wrapped up his fifth NBA season, played with the Brooklyn Nets for two seasons before joining the Nuggets in free agency last summer. In Brooklyn, Brown was part of a Nets team in constant turmoil and expected to be a shoo-in for a championship, but that group never made it past the second round of the playoffs.

Amid the chaos, Brown proved to be the Nets’ most reliable role player in the playoffs. In the 2021 postseason, he guarded Milwaukee star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, and scored in double digits in multiple games as the Nets nearly beat the Bucks in seven games. And in last season’s playoffs Brown scored 51 points over two games in the Nets first round series against Celtics.

But when free agency came around, few teams were interested in Brown. “Nobody really wanted me,” Brown said, “because they didn’t know if I could be a guard, so I kind of took it personal.”

That should change this offseason. Brown can opt out of his contract and enter free agency as one of the most attractive players available. SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell ranked Brown as the 16th-best player available in this free agent class, and Bobby Marks, who was a former assistant general manager for the Nets, expects Brown to be offered at least $12.2 million, which is the non-taxpayer mid-level exception that teams can offer players if they are above the salary cap.

That number will likely price the Nuggets out of the Brown sweepstakes, as the most Denver can offer him is $7.8 million because the Nuggets are millions of dollars over the league’s salary cap and by virtue of not owning his Bird rights, but Brown told the Denver Post that he would like to stay in Denver, and that “money isn’t everything.”

Either way, just like on his unexpected shot in Game 4, Brown’s bet on his own abilities is about to pay off.

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