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Early returns for Denver Pioneers and guard Tommy Bruner more than promising

Squad competing after last-place prediction in Summit League preseason poll.

Tommy Bruner
Denver Athletics

Denver guard Tommy Bruner describes his game as any proud point guard would. He can see plays before they happen, he can see what will happen on the court next, and he isn’t the only one in the Pioneers program with that gift.

Jeff Wulbrun, can call ‘em before they happen too.

“He’s ready to take the next step,” the third-year Pioneers’ head coach said in October.

Take the next step, he has. Early on, the fifth-year senior has been among the country’s best scorers.

Over the season’s first month, Bruner (23.6 ppg) has already notched multiple 30-point games and spent time atop the NCAA points per game leader board. As importantly, his hot start has the Pioneers (6-3) presenting a credible case to blow their preseason expectations, where they were pegged last in the Summit, out of the water.

Bruner has lived a few lives as a college player.

The Columbia, S.C. native began his career at USC Upstate, just over 90 miles north of his hometown. He was an immediate hit for the Spartans, finishing second on the team in scoring as a freshman (14.0 ppg) in 2019-20, earning a place on the Big South All-Freshman team. He spent another high scoring year at USC Upstate before one injury-disrupted season at Jacksonville.

When he was back in the transfer portal in 2022, it didn’t take Bruner long to know that Wulbrun and the Pioneers were the right fit.

“Compared to other schools, I had a good relationship with Coach Wulbrun over a short amount of time,” he said. “I just trusted my gut.”

That feeling is something that Bruner is uniquely positioned to rely on. His sister Ashley was a dominant rebounder and All-SEC forward at South Carolina in the early 2010’s, and was followed by his brother Jordan, who himself was an All-Ivy player over three seasons at Yale, and one at Alabama.

They both would go on to play professionally overseas, and gave their younger brother a taste of big-time basketball before he’d set foot on a college court.

“It wasn’t new to me, I learned a lot and saw a lot at an early age. [They] helped me grow up a little bit faster,” he said. “I got to see them go through struggles or have big games or play in front of big crowds.”

And while it hardly showed last year, Bruner was going through a struggle of his own.

A foot injury suffered during his lone year at Jacksonville in 2021-22 ended his season in early January, and continued to linger into his first year at Denver. He was at the heart of a team that started the year 8-1 and went 15-17 (6-12) overall, ultimately landing on the All-Summit Newcomer Team while setting career highs in scoring (15.9 ppg) and assists (4.2 apg). Despite that all, the effects of that foot injury were still there in the background.

“I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jump, I couldn’t go side to side. It was tough to play on,” he said.

This year, it’s different.

Unlike last offseason, this summer he wasn’t fresh off surgery and having to spend his time focusing on rehab. Instead, a year further removed from the injury, he was able to get back to a normal offseason, with running and conditioning at the top of the list. That didn’t go unnoticed to Wulbrun, who said at Summit League Media Day that Bruner had worked hard to get into great shape.

But to Wulbrun, Bruner’s final season was never going to be just about what he’d done to get himself better over the summer.

“The biggest adjustment for Tommy, while he’s improved his own game, we’ve improved the team around him,” he said. “We’ve surrounded him with shooters, and he’s a player that can get to the hip of his defender at will and get into the paint to create for himself and his teammates. I’m really excited to think how he’ll respond to that.”

That evolution has been apparent already for the Pioneers.

Bruner has at times stolen the show offensively, like when he poured in 31 points in a win over Texas A&M Commerce just after Thanksgiving. But he’s also been at the helm of a team that has been well-balanced and ready to complement the scoring punch he brings to the table.

That was the case in a late win at Idaho on Nov. 29.

It wasn’t a straightforward night for Bruner shooting the ball (14 points, 4-16 FG), but he had five assists and was in control at the end of a tight game the Pioneers trailed by as many as 12 in the second half. His three-pointer followed by a layup on the ensuing possession with just over two minutes left put the Pioneers back in front.

The Vandals would get the lead back, but DU won it on a three by UTSA transfer Isaiah Addo-Ankrah, his sixth of the game. Addo-Ankrah has been one of the big additions Wulbrun alluded to before the season (8.8 ppg, 43.8 3P%), and that game-winning shot was assisted by wing Jaxon Brenchley (9.6 ppg, 3.6 apg). The Utah transfer himself has added a dose of experience and playmaking alongside Bruner to take some of the creative pressure off the lead guard.

And while not a newcomer, the biggest highlight alongside Bruner this year has been junior Touko Tainamo. The Finland native has himself notched multiple 30-point games, and is nearly averaging a double double (19.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg) as a part of a career year coming off an offseason he spent playing for his home country at the World University Games in China.

How far can that mix take the Pioneers?

Thus far, the Pioneers have posted their most efficient KenPom offense to date under Wulbrun, with their three-point shooting better than last year in the early going. That should prevent teams from, in Wulbrun’s words, simply sitting in the gaps and waiting for Bruner’s drives as they did toward the end of last season. It also could let the Pioneers use their lead guards talents pushing the ball in the open court more.

The defense has been an issue the past three seasons, but DU would seem to have size in the paint – with Tainamo and 7’0 Grand Canyon transfer Isaiah Carr – and on the wing to bother teams in league play.

The Pioneers get a massive test on Wednesday night in Fort Collins against No. 13 Colorado State but, whatever the result, the early returns in Bruner’s final season, both for him and the team, have been more than encouraging.

“We’re creating an identity for ourselves,” he said. “We’re going to be a 40-minute team, no matter what the game throws at us, we’re going to play hard for 40 minutes.”