Robbinsville High boys’ basketball coach Connor Hayes should be happy that potato chips, pretzels and fast food are a staple of teenagers’ existence, or he wouldn’t have Carnie Bragg to lean on this year.
Bragg wasn’t showing up on a lot of pre-season “Players to Watch” lists, but he’s extremely important to the Ravens.
“This off-season he really took up a huge leadership role going into his senior season,” Hayes said. “We lost a lot of our size to graduation and transfers. He’s really one of our bigger guys this year (at 6-foot-2), but being able to adjust to any role and any level of expectation is something he excels in. He was a rebounder for us in the summer, a vocal leader on the defensive end and he’s just adjusted to whatever we’ve needed him to do.”
Hayes would have none of this at his disposal, however, were Bragg able to maintain a healthier diet growing up.
Bragg never played organized basketball until he went out for the RHS basketball team in ninth grade. Up until then, he wrestled for Pond Road all through middle school. By the end of 8th grade, he had enough.
“I just wasn’t into it anymore,” he said. “Before wrestling, I was a little chunky, then I got really skinny. I was at 115 pounds in seventh grade and at 135 in eighth grade. I just didn’t like maintaining my weight. I like to eat junk food too much.”
After eighth grade, Bragg began playing basketball at Washington Park every day during the summer. Despite the fact it was just pick-up games, he got enough positive feedback from guys he played with to give the sport a shot.
“I’d been pretty good,” he said. “There’s always some good competition out there, and they encouraged me to go out for team. I decided I was gonna go all-in on basketball, and now, here I am.”
Despite his lack of experience, Bragg felt confident in his abilities and ended up averaging double figures for the freshman team. As a sophomore, he averaged 11 points on the JV and got called up to varsity for the final three games.
Bragg was promoted to varsity last year and, with Lucas Olshevski handling the brunt of the scoring, Bragg averaged 5.5 points.
“Last season was a great learning experience for him and really helped build his confidence,” Hayes said. “He quickly became our best perimeter defender. He really gravitated to that role and if someone got hot in the first quarter we didn’t expect to get hot, we could flip Carnie over to him and the kid would get shut down for the rest of the game.”
Over the summer, Bragg took his leadership role seriously, getting the team in the gym for skills workouts and making sure they hit the weight room. He also worked on his own game, particularly shooting, ball handling and getting stronger in order to finish off drives to the basket.
“We played in the summer league at West Windsor South, and I played AAU for the first time in the fall for the Central Jersey Devils,” Bragg said. “It built up my confidence a lot; playing against better competition. I learned how to be more aggressive and take better shots.”
As one of the team’s few veterans, Bragg also has to endure the role of being the whipping boy at practice.
“The sophomores, juniors and freshmen know if I’m holding him accountable, they’re thinking, ‘If coach is gonna get on him when he starts slacking off, he’s definitely gonna get on me,’” Hayes said. “He just takes it and is constantly trying to learn and trying to be better. He’s definitely somebody the other guys look up to. He makes sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing and has definitely been a joy to coach.”
Because of a lack of height, Robbinsville will be more of a fullcourt team this year, with Bragg playing pretty much every position but center. He will primarily be a shooting guard, which is where he has played most of his career. He will also be on the ball in a fullcourt situation, but be asked to defend the post as well.
Offensively, he is being counted on as a scorer.
“I just want to be confident and take the shots I know I can make, and make sure I get my teammates involved by passing, rebounding, doing the little things,” Bragg said. “I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to it.”
Forward Grayson Cook is the lone returnee with ample experience, and the Ravens have several bigger sophomores that Hayes hopes will contribute. It is up to Bragg to bring them along.
“The leadership aspect of it is a new role for him, and something he’s really embraced,” the coach said. “Last year he was quieter, he listened to the seniors, and he tried to take from the leadership of Luke and some of the other guys who’ve been around for a while. With them being gone we needed somebody to step up and he didn’t hesitate. The role is kind of new, but you can’t really tell by watching him in practice and watching him in the workouts.”
Bragg is currently looking into colleges, and keeps busy off the court as a member of Project Unify and the RHS Garden Club.
“We plant stuff in the back of the school, it’s pretty neat,” Bragg said. “My biology teacher asked me last year if I wanted to join and I thought it was something new and exciting to do, so I tried it out.”
Bragg hopes to have his own garden in the future, but hasn’t started watching the Home & Garden Network.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not that bad yet.”