When it comes to college basketball it would be hard to top the setting of AJ Brodeur’s first home game.
He ran out of the locker room and onto the hardwood of the 90-year-old Palestra, the Philadelphia basketball mecca that oozes history. What’s more the University of Pennsylvania’s opponent that night was none other than defending national champion Villanova. A 25-point setback did not diminish the thrill.
“It was definitely a unique experience,” said the freshman forward, who visited the Quakers’ home court on recruiting trips, but never a played at the Palestra until that Thanksgiving weekend tipoff against the Wildcats. “I had never been to a game before with an atmosphere like that. It was incredible.”
Brodeur’s freshman season has been pretty good in its own right. He leads the Quakers in scoring with 14.3 points per game, including 15 on 7-for-10 shooting in an 82-63 victory against Cornell Sunday on ASN. It was Penn's second consecutive Ivy League win after six losses in a row.
Brodeur is also, tied for the lead in rebounds (6.5) and second in the Ivy League in blocked shots (2.2).
Among other highlights as his first season winds down is that his 35 points against Big Five opponent La Salle on Jan. 25 were the most by a Penn player in 22 years. Brodeur’s efforts have earned him Ivy League Rookie of the Week recognition on four occasions.
The honors are nice, of course, but only 19 games into his career it is about continuing to improve after helping his team get off the schneid in league play.
“With the help of my teammates and coaches I think I have been able to come a long way from where I was at the beginning of the season to now,” he said prior to practice Thursday afternoon. “I came (to Penn) real comfortable in the post to mid-range area and the whole year I have been building that up. I think I have gotten better at my post game while learning the speed of play at Division I basketball.”
Brodeur, who is listed as 6-8 and 225 pounds, has also been venturing outside the arc from time to time. He may only have 10 3-point attempts (he’s made five), but until this season that area of the court might as well have been in another zip code.
“That’s more than I took during my entire high school career,” he said. “I am really excited about that and I can’t wait to keep working on it. Being my size and not being a true center or big man I know that extending my range would definitely help.”
It has helped that Brodeur was an outstanding volleyball player in high school. During the spring of his freshman year he had some time on his hands and decided to join the volleyball team, which he ultimately captained for two years. He credits the sport’s physical elements for many of his successes on the court, including his knack for blocking shots.
“I think the skills between basketball and volleyball are directly related,” he said. “That was one of the reasons why I started playing in the first place. I knew it would be good for lateral movement and vertical jumping. For the most part it is vertical jumping, no steps and just straight up and down. That has definitely helped me with my timing and my abilities as an athlete.”
Second-year coach Steve Donahue does not have to be concerned about Brodeur joining the volleyball team after this season. Penn, after all, does not have a men’s varsity volleyball program. Rather, what he has in Brodeur is a young player oozing with promise on both ends of the floor and willing to learn.
“The thing that allows him to get better is that he is a very coachable kid,” said Donahue, who previously served as an assistant at Penn. “He has a pretty good feel for the game and a great motor, so I feel the next progression in his game is facing up the three and making people defend him out there. In the meantime, the simple things that got him here are probably what he needs to really do well. Be good around the rim, be poised and confident.”
Donahue also praised Brodeur’s defensive prowess, something he saw on display when he was the head coach at Boston College and attended many of Brodeur’s high school games.
Brodeur, who is from Northborough, Mass., and enjoying yet another Patriots Super Bowl victory, considered attending BC, Davidson, Notre Dame and multiple Ivy League schools. Being familiar with Donahue certainly helped when it came time to decide.
“By the end of my process I narrowed it down to just Ivy League schools,” he said. “That’s really what I wanted focus on, acquiring a high-level academic experience and knowing that the Ivy League will keep building and experience more success. I narrowed it down to Harvard, Yale and Penn. At the end of the day I just fell in love with Philadelphia and the system coach Donahue runs. Ultimately it was the best decision for me.”
Donahue isn’t the only one helping the young man advance his game. Brodeur’s mother and role model, Jerri, played basketball at North Adams State College, which is currently known as Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Brodeur said that Jerri, who attends all of her son’s games, is not bashful when it comes to issuing feedback.
“She has high expectations of me and she is able to critique my game without giving me any fluff,” he said. “She doesn’t embellish any details. She goes right at it telling me what I need to work on. She has been a great influence on me as a person and as a player. I am so glad she can come to all of our games.”
Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa. Follow him on Twitter at @TomLay810.