William McCormack

When Jordan Bruner ’20 injured his knee for the fourth time in three years — and the third time in 13 months  — the Yale men’s basketball forward immediately knew something was wrong.

After leaping to block a three-point attempt from former Boston University guard Cheddi Mosely in a closed scrimmage before the start of the 2017–18 season, Bruner collided with Mosely on his descent. His knee twisted, and the all too familiar pop that would end his sophomore season followed, subjecting Bruner to a year on the bench six days before Yale faced Creighton to open the season.

Bruner’s lengthy rehabilitation and a healthy meniscus have made for a triumphant return to his junior year on the hardwood, as the 6-foot-9-inch South Carolina native continues to remind the Ivy League of his versatile impact. His 3.9 assists per game lead the conference, and when he and his teammates hit shots, the high-energy forward appears to anchor a championship team.

“[Recovery’s] definitely tough, especially after you’ve put in as much work, given this game as much as I have, but it’s just a learning experience,” Bruner said. “It just makes me more grateful to be out there this year, playing the game with my guys. It’s fun; I enjoy making my teammates better.”

In games, Bruner still sports a thin, black brace on his left knee, and although he said it swells occasionally, any lingering soreness has not stopped him from starting all 17 of Yale’s contests this season. He’s logging just over 27 minutes a game for his balanced Bulldog team, and a few weeks ago, he was the only Division I men’s basketball player to lead a conference in both assists and rebounds. Now second in the Ancient Eight with 8.2 rebounds per game, Bruner also ranks second with a 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio and leads Yale with 1.2 blocks a game.

When he committed to Yale in November of his senior year — picking the Elis over offers from power conference programs in Clemson, Georgia and Tennessee — Bruner had already torn a meniscus, which forced him to miss his junior season in high school. A sprained ACL sidelined him for the first four games of his career at Yale, and he tore his meniscus again in a postseason workout  — following the inaugural 2017 Ivy Madness tournament and a curtailed freshman season in which he ranked among the dozen best players in the Ancient Eight with 55 blocks, a 51.3 field goal percentage and 5.6 rebounds per game.

With each injury, Bruner managed to recover with perspective, individual focus and a work ethic that is difficult to comprehend. He fills his free time with basketball and, in the midst of his current resurgence, clocks in the maximum number of hours Yale permits students to work on campus per week — working 19 hours a week at Payne Whitney Gym.

“I spend a lot of my time doing [basketball],” Bruner said. “Anytime that I have free time I’m pretty much doing something basketball related, just because it’s what I enjoy to do…Time management is what everybody said would be the most important thing coming here, but I just have a routine and kind of stick to it. I mean it’s not even a big deal to me.”

He works a shift on the first floor of the gym from Sunday to Thursday, helping people check in, coordinating membership information and making headway on some homework if he has time. The weekly 19-hour commitment to his job accompanies the five classes he takes this semester and the time he spends in four three-and-a-half hour practices, three forty-five-minute lifts, film review in the media room before practice, team meals and travel not just to the outer reaches of the Ivy League — Hanover, Ithaca and Philadelphia — but to Memphis, Miami and yes, Shanghai for the 2018 Pac-12 China Game last fall.

Bruner does not work Fridays and Saturdays, of course, because he is competing, treating fans to his brand of high-energy basketball, monstrous slams and the occasional double-double, a statistical achievement he has either attained or nearly missed in almost every Yale game since a 99–84 win over Iona on Dec. 22.

Yet head coach James Jones — and Bruner himself  — believe Bulldog fans are still waiting to see the star big man in full form. After a win against Albany in which Bruner tallied 12 rebounds, eight assists and seven points in December, Jones called the forward “a triple-double waiting to happen.”

“My expectation coming into the year [was] that Jordan would be a player of the year candidate, that he would be somebody that would be as good as anybody else in the league with his skill set and what he’s able to do,” Jones said last week. “I still don’t think we’ve seen his best game yet. Jordan is continuing to work on that. When he was a freshman, [in] our first scrimmage I thought he was tremendous and outstanding, and he is still trying to build on that game. I expect a lot more out of him before it’s all said and done.”

Last Saturday at Dartmouth, the economics major may have given the Ivy League a peek of his full potential, especially in the first half. Scoring 15 points in his first 15 minutes of playing time on 60 percent shooting and three triples, Bruner appeared as if he were finally meeting the high expectations he sets for himself. He showed flashes of the player capable of combining stellar court vision, three-point shooting and dominance on the boards in a comprehensive, whistle-to-whistle performance.

Guard Miye Oni ’20 may have stolen the headlines with a 24-point second half and a new career-high in scoring, but Bruner was — and has been all season — his frontcourt accomplice. He finds Oni when he pushes the ball on a fast break and receives the same passes in the opposite role, finishing at the rim with a signature two-handed slam and releasing the victorious howl that always follows.

“I played a lot of positions growing up, so I just take pride in that,” Oni said after the win. “Jordan has too, so you can see it in his game. We just like playing with each other, running, and that’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we can showcase our full abilities.”

Oni and forward Paul Atkinson ’21 work a floor above Bruner in Payne Whitney. Bruner and Oni, who Bruner said also logs the maximum 19 hours a week, work nearly five times the average Yale student does in an on-campus job, which the Yale Student Employment office calculated to be four hours a week during the 2016–17 school year.

Injury robbed Bruner of his sophomore season, and a broken foot sidelined guard Makai Mason ’18 for the final two years of his Yale career before Mason transferred to Baylor with his final year of eligibility as a graduate student. One can only wonder how Yale could have benefited from featuring Bruner, Mason and Oni on the same court. Though all three were on the roster for two seasons, the never played a single minute together. On Saturday night, playing two different teams in two different gyms, the trio combined for 88 points for their respective sides.

College Sports Madness named Bruner the Ivy League Player of the Week last month after he scored 18 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds against Cal State Northridge.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

WILLIAM MCCORMACK
William McCormack currently serves as a Sports and Digital Editor for the Yale Daily News. He previously covered men’s basketball and the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.