Asked if his dad had an influence on him as a player, Braun said: “Big time. He’s probably the biggest reason I’m where I am right now.”
The Springboro native — who attended Fenwick High School along with older siblings Rachel and Nick — had to go into COVID-19 protocols because of contact tracing just after his father’s death. And several teammates also were forced into quarantine.
The Raiders split two games on the road with just five scholarship players, and then returned home in time for the visitation Jan. 18 and the funeral Mass the following day.
“The support from them has been phenomenal,” Braun said. “Everyone has been there for me every step of the way.
“I still obviously struggle with it a little bit. But it’s good to know if I need anything, they’re right there with a text or whatever. That’s really comforting.”
Coach Scott Nagy and his players are getting all too accustomed to losing loved ones this season.
“We’ve had six deaths on our team — either parents or grandparents and all very important people in their lives,” Nagy said. “But for A.J., he couldn’t be with his team right after losing his dad. And all the others who stayed behind were in isolation, too. It was a very tough deal for him — and for our team.”
The Raiders played at IUPUI one day after the funeral. And while Braun was told to take all the time he needed to grieve, he decided to suit up with his teammates.
He started and had seven points and five rebounds in 17 minutes in the 72-45 win.
“It was definitely difficult,” he said. “But my dad — I felt like there’s nothing else he would’ve wanted me to do. That’s what he enjoyed doing the most, watching me play. I feel like there wasn’t any other choice than to help my team and try to play for him.”
At least his dad got to see him blossom into a Division-I college starter this year, which looked like a longshot before the season.
A.J. averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds his final two years at Fenwick and had offers from Ohio University, Toledo, Boston University and Youngstown State.
The Raiders were elated to beat out the other suitors — size is a hard commodity to find on the recruiting trail — but the plan was to redshirt him this season.
The staff, though, went through summer workouts and preseason practice searching for a fifth starter to go with four returning stalwarts. After three games this season, two of them losses, they pulled Braun’s redshirt.
In the next three games as a sub at the Naples Invitational, he tallied 22 points and 12 rebounds.
He made his first start when the Raiders returned home, scoring 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting in an 86-73 win at Purdue Fort Wayne.
He also had 13 points and seven rebounds in the upset of N.C. State.
A fixture now as a starter, he’s averaging 7.0 points while shooting a team-best 58.4% from the field.
“It’s been crazy,” he said of getting thrust into action. “It took me a while to process everything that was going on.
“I was eager to play after watching the first few games when I was redshirting. I felt like, ‘Man, I want to be out there helping them.’ When they told me they were taking my redshirt away, I was pretty excited and couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Nagy and his staff poke fun at themselves for almost redshirting one of the team’s best players. But Braun didn’t exactly give them much choice in the preseason.
Though he’s got the build to bang inside at 230 pounds, he didn’t look sure of himself on the floor.
“We had a scrimmage (against Ball State) earlier in the year, and I remember Coach saying, ‘It does you no good to play all nervous,’” Braun said, referring to Nagy.
“That kind of stuck with me. In my first college game, I just thought, ‘Don’t over-think it. Just go out there and play. Don’t be too nervous.’”
Nothing bothers Nagy more than players backing down and not competing, but he never has to preach toughness to Braun.
“He’s not afraid. That’s the one thing I really like about him — he’s not afraid of anybody,” Nagy said.
“He’s … I don’t want to say ‘goofy,’ but very light-hearted. The kids love him. He’s a good teammate. He keeps things loose. And he doesn’t have any fear.”
The Raiders tried four different starting lineups in the first six games, five of them losses, before turning to Braun. They’re 11-5 since realizing he was the answer.
“He’s adjusted really quick,” teammate Tanner Holden said. “It’s never easy coming from high school to college, especially for A.J., who was redshirting. I think he did a great job staying prepared.
“He does a great job all around — being physical, passing the ball, not turning it over. That’s a big key. The pace of the game is crazy in college. But he’s definitely stepped up, and he’s going to be a problem (for future opponents).”
Braun does look to be the next in line to become a star for the Raiders.
And while his father won’t be around to enjoy it, he probably would be the first to say he could see it coming.
Detroit Mercy at Wright State, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 980