Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The mutual attraction between Sam Brown and Steve Donahue’s Penn program started early.
The Lower Merion sharpshooter and his father, former 76ers head coach Brett Brown, began looking at Division I programs as it became clear in Sam’s early years with the Aces that his trajectory was headed in that direction, and quickly became interested in the Quakers.
“We’d watch all the Ivy League games, looking for Donahue’s offense,” Sam Brown said, “and that’s when I knew that I would be able to play for Donahue and really enjoy it.”
Lower Merion junior guard Sam Brown (above) committed to Penn over the weekend. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Intrigued by Brown’s willowy frame and his smooth left-handed shot, Donahue and Penn started recruiting the sophomore guard — lightly at first, but as the months went on, and Brown continued to develop, it became much more than casual interest. This past year, as Lower Merion made its run to a District 1 6A championship and state semifinal appearance, Donahue was often in the front row, tucked away in a corner, an eye on Brown the whole time.
“Donahue was at almost every game, it was kind of ridiculous, he really paid attention to me,” Brown said. “It is convenient, the fact that the university is 20 minutes away from me, but that doesn’t take away from the effort that he made.”
So it’s no surprise that Brown ended his college recruitment early, announcing over the weekend that he’d be a Quaker beginning in the fall of 2023.
“It was such a good fit, that’s really the only way I could put it,” he said. “I think that even if some colleges that were looking at me were a higher level than the Ivy League, I still would have chosen Penn immediately over there. And if I was prepared to say no to any college that really came onto me [...] so I didn’t really see a point in waiting.”
Brown’s the first commitment for Donahue’s program in its 2023 class, and he’s a significant one. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound junior has turned from an impressive 3-point threat off the catch into a well-rounded guard who can handle the ball with both hands, get into the lane, hit shots on the move, play in the pick-and-roll — and still bury shots with NBA range, something that will play well in a Donahue offense that values 3-point ability and encourages shot-taking.
He certainly projects as an important piece as Donahue aims to get his program back to where it was in his third season, 2017-18, when the Quakers went 24-9 and won an Ivy League title for the first time since 2007. Last year, they went 12-16 (9-5 Ivy), losing in the league semifinals after the whole conference took the 2020-21 season off due to COVID.
In addition to his on-court abilities, he’s got the built-in mental toughness it takes to be successful at the next level, honed by years of enduring chants from opposing fans, all too eager to poke fun at his famous father.
“I remember even the first game of my high school career, I started and they introduced me as ‘Sam Brown, Brett Brown’s son’ — which, I don’t know, I never really liked that,” he said. “But I think now it’s ended up just being Sam Brown, which I think is kind of meaningful to me.
“There was always… freshman year, we’re playing Harriton and I have 700 kids on the opposing crowd chanting ‘fire Brett Brown,’ at that point, that stuff doesn’t affect me at all. It’s going to help me in the long run; not many people can experience something like that more than once.”
They’re not chants he hears any more — the Central League First Teamer has more than proved his own worth on the court.
Playing as part of a terrific two-man tandem with Penn State-bound big man Demetrius Lilley this past season, Brown helped lead Lower Merion to a 27-4 record, defending their District 1 6A title in a 68-57 win over Norristown. And while Brown wasn’t stellar in every single game, he was a star much more often than not, whether that was by going off in the scoring column or playing more of a distributor role as Lilley went for 30-plus on multiple occasions.
“Something I’m happy about is that Donahue saw me so many times, he saw me [for] a straight year, there were times where I would have laid an egg, I can’t really hide from the times he saw me — it’s not like he’s getting tricked either,” Brown said. “At this point, I’m just looking to have a lot of fun, especially next season, for Lower Merion.”
Brown said that while he’s already forming relationships with many players on the squad, it’s Abington product and team captain Lucas Monroe who’s been the one reaching out and getting him comfortable, making him feel included.
He’ll arrive on campus with a leg up on many Ivy League freshmen, as he’s currently going down to West Philly at least once a week to play pickup with some of his future teammates.
“They all enjoy these trick, back-cut plays or setting a screen and slipping,” Brown said. “[It’s] just really good basketball when you’re watching it, and they just know what good basketball is, I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s definitely just the continuity to their offense I really like.
“I’m walking in there [next fall] and I think it’s going to be like home, it’s not going to be a transition at all,” he added. “There wouldn’t be any sort of getting used to the playing level, especially with this EYBL circuit that I’m playing in right now and playing pick-up with these guys, I’m not getting surprised by anything, I’m not going to get tricked.”
Brown is hitting about 35% of his 3-pointers in EYBL play thus far. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The EYBL reference is to the fact that Brown is playing this summer with Team Final on Nike’s grassroots circuit, getting a chance to play against many of the top prospects in the country. On a squad with top-five wing Justin Edwards (plus his Imhotep teammates Ahmad Nowell and Rahmir Barno), Wood big man Carson Howard and more, Brown’s averaging 3.8 ppg in a reserve role, but he’s still enjoying the experience.
“That was really the main reason was to do the EYBL, it was never for recruitment, I think because I knew I was going to end up at Penn,” he said. “The only reason I chose it was to see where I stand skill-wise against some of these other guys, regardless of size or athleticism. I saw it as a really good opportunity for me to see where I’m at.”
It was after fourth grade that the Browns first arrived in the Philadelphia area, moving from San Antonio due to Brett’s new job.
Though the nature of being a coach’s son means that it can be tough to call any place ‘home,’ there’s no doubt the Browns have put roots down in the region — and Sam’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“My family’s definitely became ingrained in the area over time,” he said. “My sister lives in Narberth, my other sister’s going to Temple’s med school, so I think we all kind of want to stay in the area, and that’s kind of how it’s ended up. We’ll all be here for a while.”