NEW YORK – Arguably every player on the Dallas Mavericks’ roster has a soft spot in their heart for Jalen Brunson.
That’s why when the Mavs square off against Brunson and his new team – the New York Knicks – on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Madison Square Garden, this will be more than just a regular NBA game. This will be players strolling down memory lane and remembering with fondness the four years Brunson went to battle with them while he was with the Mavs.
“Jalen is a great player,” guard Frank Ntilikina said. “He’s a player that comes in every day and gets his work in. He shows by example, and he’s a great leader and communicator.
“Playing beside him and with hm, I learned a lot. He’s also a good friend. But like I said, tomorrow when the game starts there’s no friendship. There’s only one thing – how the Mavs can get a victory.”
As Luka Doncic’s sidekick in the backcourt during his entire tenure with the Mavs, Brunson was a major contributor on the team that advanced to last season’s Western Conference Finals. And whenever Doncic wasn’t on the court, this was Brunson’s turn to run the offense and keep it on solid footing, and he accomplished that feat with amazing aplomb.
“He’s competitive and a great player, so it’s going to be a night of that,” center Dwight Powell said. “So we have to pay a lot of attention to him, obviously.
“We know his tendencies, but he’s a good friend, so we’ve got to lock in.”
And as the Mavs are locking in, they know somewhere right now Brunson is likely in a gym working on his craft. They also know Brunson probably circled this game on his calendar, considering this is his first matchup with the Mavs since he departed Dallas over the summer.
“JB is one of my best friends that’s in the league,” forward Reggie Bullock said. “He’s a great guy overall.
“Just being able to compete against him in a different jersey is also difficult.”
Brunson broke a lot of hearts when he decided to leave the Mavs this summer and sign a massive four-year, $104 million free agent contract with the Knicks. Coach Jason Kidd knows that negotiating that type of contract and seeing it come to fruition was a huge win for Brunson.
“I’m happy for JB.,” Kidd said. “He’s having a great season for the Knicks.
“He’s on the other side tomorrow, so we’ve got to try to make it as tough as possible.”
That’s precisely what Brunson did to opponents when he wore a Mavs’ uniform. His productivity increased every year he was with the Mavs, culminating with Brunson averaging career highs in scoring (16.3), rebounding (3.9) and assists (4.8) last season.
“He made a lot of progress, just being able to run the team and play alongside a star,” Kidd said. “He put in the work, so he deserves everything he got.”
So far with the Knicks, it’s been a roller coaster ride for Brunson, considering New York is only 10-12 overall and have lost five of their last seven games. In the process, Brunson is averaging team highs in points (21.3), assists (6.5) and steals (1.1).
“I’m not surprised he advanced his game,” Powell said. “He’s one of those guys that lives in the gym, he’s a hard worker (and) he knows the game.”
Brunson joined the Mavs in the same 2018 NBA Draft that produced Doncic. But while Doncic was the much more celebrated third overall pick in the draft, Brunson wasn’t picked until the second round – No. 33 overall pick.
However, Brunson steadily worked his way into the Mavs’ starting lineup in the middle of last season after Tim Hardaway Jr. suffering a season-ending injury. And with that increased playing time, Brunson flourished to the point where the demand for his services in free agency went sky high.
Also, any tension surrounding Saturday’s game could be sky high, considering the trading of places by Brunson.
“We’re preparing for this game like any other game,” Ntilikina said, while trying to convince his listener. “It’s going to be Jalen, but it’s going to also be all the talented players on their team.
“We’re prepared well, and we’re going to go there tomorrow and try and get the win – Jalen Brunson or not.”
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