The Game Changer

He doesn’t loom over seven feet tall, he doesn’t dazzle with his quickness and he doesn’t look like a bodybuilder.

But he plays like he does.

By sticking to his own brand of basketball, junior guard Bolden Brace quietly put together an incredibly valuable 2017-18 season for the Huskies.

However, it was a game that could be described as anything but quiet that established Brace’s name in Northeastern record books as a freshman.

Feb. 23, 2016. The Huskies are fighting for the No. 6 seed in the upcoming CAA tournament. Standing in the way, Elon University. A freshman, Brace remains entrenched behind the three-point line, knowing his role and ready to contribute. By the time the first-half buzzer rings out, Brace nails seven threes in 10 attempts. He scores 28 of the team’s 43 total points.

A game-high 11 more points followed in the second half as the scoreboard displays the 91-91 score after regulation.

By the time double-OT concludes in a one-point Northeastern victory, Brace has the third 40-point performance in school history. He sets the program record with 10 threes. He plays every minute of the first half, second half and both OTs.

The freshman had arrived.

“If I hit one shot, I’m usually pulling the next shot I get,” Brace said. “That game, I just happened to make the first couple shots, and after that I don’t really remember much.”

“I’ve watched that film a couple of times,” he remembered with a laugh. “It was an incredible experience. I just think once I get in that zone, I lose my mind and go crazy.”

After seeing Brace’s full potential on display, it may come as a surprise to learn that as a sophomore, the 6-foot-6-inch guard played predominantly off the bench for the Huskies’ 2017-18 season after averaging 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds as a freshman.

“He can come in for a number of different players; if anybody in our lineup gets in foul trouble, he can fill in for almost anybody on the floor,” head coach Bill Coen said. “He gives you that kind of versatility.”

Adjusting to the game flow coming off the pine can be difficult for some players. After all, there’s downtime between warmups and checking into the game that can affect a player’s rhythm. Brace uses that time to his advantage.

“It’s definitely a different mindset,” he said. “Right away, you’re sitting for at least three or four minutes. It’s not enough time to get cold, but you have to stay locked in. What I like to do, I try to pick out which plays they’re running so I’m ready when I check in on defense.”

“Coming off the bench is something that I never thought I would do,” Brace admitted. “But once I started doing it, I realized it’s more than just not being a starter — it’s more being instant offense and a sparkplug. I actually grew to really like that. It’s a lot of fun […] when I come in, it’s easy for me to come in and feel confident about my shot.”

And shooting is the most apparent aspect of his game. Brace launched 78 percent of his field-goal attempts from beyond the arc, far and away the highest rate on the team. The result was a lethal 39.6 percent conversion rate, 12th in the CAA among players with over 800 minutes played.

Perhaps the most impressive part was that Brace had to create open shot opportunities without the ball in his hands. Then-junior Vasa Pusica played the role of primary ballhandler, and it was up to Brace to maneuver around the defense and put himself in a spot where he could catch and shoot in a moment’s notice.

“It’s pretty easy for me because we have such a good point guard in [Vasa Pusica] and such good passers around me,” Brace said. “The majority of my off-ball action is just moving and looking for the open space in between defenders. I just have to be smarter than the defense while I’m on offense.”

Dec. 2, 2017, the Huskies host Cornell University. Pusica casually brings the ball over half court, hesitates and blows by his defender. Two defenders run over to help cover the paint. Before defenders react, the ball is slung across the court to a wide open Brace in the corner.

Catch the ball, bring it down, adjust the hands, bring it up and follow through — 0.55 seconds and the ball is airborne. All Cornell can do is helplessly watch the ball sail through the net.

With shooting ability like Brace’s, one would think that this exact scene plays out a dozen times each game. Instead, it’s his overwhelming unselfishness that outweighs any other aspect of his game.

Case and point: no Husky had a lower usage rate than Bolden Brace – Husky possessions ended less frequently on a Brace shot attempt or turnover than any other player.

“Having the ball in my hands more is not something I’m really worried about,” Brace said. “I’m just looking to create the best shot for the team. That’s just the way I am.”

Coen asserted that claim — it’s just the way he is.

“It speaks to the way he’s naturally oriented. He’s a selfless person, he wants to move the ball,” Coen said. “Sometimes he passes up some good open shots, but what he does do is make the offense go for other guys. When you look at our offensive efficiency, a lot of it has to do with the passing, and [Brace] is a big contributor to that.”

When Brace passed up a shot, it was for good reason. His 16.3 percent assist rate ranked second on the team. Not too shabby for a guy who plays off the ball.

Still, with an offensive profile like Brace’s naturally comes talk of getting him more involved in the team’s offensive schemes.

“You’re always looking to get creative and find ways for him to score,” Coen said. “He’s one of those guys that once he sees the ball go in the basket early, he can get in for a big night.”

Of course, Brace won’t be open for three every time, especially as the league grows more and more aware of his shooting prowess. But he could look for more opportunities inside the arc, where he is already one of the team’s most efficient scorers.

It’s not a new concept to Brace, but it’s something that he continues to work on.

“A lot of people try to get me to get in the paint a little more — my dad, my coaches,” Brace said. “I’ve never really been a guy who does that, but I’m definitely going to try to get more looks inside the arc because they’re easier shots. When you drive you can also create for other guys because defense collapses, so it’s a good thing to have in your game.”

Despite making up just 22 percent of his shot arsenal, Brace converted two-point shots at a 69.2 percent clip, good for second on the team. If he got fouled on the way to the basket? No problem, his 82.4 percent free-throw percentage was tops among Huskies.

November 6, 2018, crosstown rivals Boston University enter Matthews Arena. Brace receives a pass at the top of the key. He fakes the three-point look, leaving the defender no choice but to bite — anything to avoid giving the sharpshooter a clean look at the basket.

With his opposition in the air, Brace cuts to the hoop and gives a hop step, drawing another Terrier in the interior. Another pump fake puts him in the same compromising position as his teammate, and Brace takes the opportunity to draw contact and the whistle.

One free throw, splash. The next, no problem. Two more on the board for the Huskies.

Putting it all together, Brace’s effective field-goal percentage stood at 61.5 percent, also second-best on the team. This metric values a three-pointer as 1.5 field goals, since it’s worth 1.5 times as many points as a normal two-point field goal.

The three-pointer remains an integral part of his game, and it’s the threat of the deep shot that affords him opportunities inside the arc.

“A lot more kids can shoot threes rather than dunk or fly through the air, especially in my game,” Brace said, before adding: “I can’t really jump very high.”

Brace might be selling himself a bit short there. Sure, he doesn’t boast a 40-inch vertical, but that doesn’t stop the crafty guard from dominating the defensive glass.

At 6-foot-6, Brace led his team in defensive rebounding percentage, corralling 19.6 percent of opponents’ missed shots. The secret to his success?

“It comes down to being active, that’s the guy that gets the most rebounds,” Brace said. “The first thing I think of is, where can I go to get the best opportunity to get the ball?”

Brace pointed to the white lines around the key under the basket, referred to as the rebounding box.

“That’s the area on the court where the ball is most likely to go after the shot,” he explained. “Watching film and trying to look for tendencies, where guys don’t box out and where guys don’t look to get the rebound, that’s what I’m looking for.”

The Huskies’ built their offense on efficiency rather than pace — their 49.5 percent field-goal percentage ranked first in the CAA, while their 955 field goals attempted ranked at the bottom. But with Brace on the floor, they were able to run a combination of the two.

In that same game against BU, Terrier guard Jonas Harper goes up for a layup, but Brace is with him the whole way with a hand in his face, making an otherwise easy shot nearly impossible.

Before the ball clangs off the rim, Brace is already sizing up the two nearest Terriers, positioning his body perfectly to create a impassable wall separating their reaching arms from the prize. He has it angled down to the degree the ball lands harmlessly in his grasp.

But before the Terrier defense could react, Brace spins around and fires a deep pass down the floor to a wide open Pusica. Easy two points.

“Our offense in transition picks up because he’s a tremendous defensive rebounder,” Coen illustrated. “Whenever he gets a rebound, because of his skill set, he can push the ball in transition and create good transition shots. He brings that element to our game and that’s really important.”

“Rebounding is about attitude and effort,” Coen added. “He’s always on the go, he’s in constant motion, he’s not afraid to bang and he’s not afraid of making multiple efforts on a possession. A lot of guys will just die out, make one or two hard cuts, they won’t finish the possession. But his motor is always on the go.”

It’s these intangibles that has Coen and fellow Huskies in awe. Brace’s subtle dominance doesn’t end with the hardwood.

“[Brace] is one of the most likeable guys on the team. Great personality, great team-first attitude, very unselfish, and I think his game depicts that,” Coen said. “He’s a multi-tooled player, but he’s a guy that everybody loves as a teammate. He’s the ultimate teammate.”

Now a junior, Brace understands the leadership responsibility that naturally falls on him.

“I like to think that guys look up to me, and that’s always in my head while I’m on the court,” he said. “Just trying to stay positive, be loud, be a leader and trying to influence them. Anybody could be watching, especially those younger guys.”

If there’s one statistic to sum up Bolden Brace’s game, it would be box plus/minus. This is a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. Essentially, it takes into account every element of a player’s game, and estimates how many additional points it’s worth.

Nobody in the CAA had a higher box plus/minus than Bolden Brace.

Coen said it best: “When he comes in the game, the game changes.”

Featured image by Brian Bae.