Unlike many in his situation, Jalen Brunson went from a virtual pristine college basketball career to entering the NBA with his hands planted firmly on the re-set button.
That’s because Brunson was the Associated Press College Player of the Year in 2018 after leading Villanova to its second national title in three seasons. While that prestigious honor comes with tons of adulation, somehow Brunson wasn’t selected until the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft.
To put that in perspective, since Jerry Lucas won the first AP College Player of the Year award after the 1960-61 season, every AP College Player of the Year — save for the players in ‘62 and ’65 who were under the NBA’s old territorial rule – was drafted in the NBA’s first round except Frank Mason III in 2017 and Brunson the following year.
Not only that, Brunson went from being the big man on campus at Villanova to fighting for a spot in the rotation of the Dallas Mavericks, who chose him with the third pick of the second round. So how did Brunson deal with that difficult transition?
“Seriously, I’ve got to thank my dad,” he said. “My dad has helped me through a lot. It’s not easy being one of the go-to guys on a team to not knowing if you’re going to play, especially in your first year.”
Brunson’s dad, Rick Brunson, played in the NBA from 1995-2006, and also was an assistant coach with Denver, Chicago, Charlotte and Minnesota.
“My dad helped me with my mindset, and my approach is the same,” Brunson said. “I approach the game – every game – like it’s the same.
“I know that the role changed from here and all. But from then to now the role may have changed, but my job is to come in there and change the game some how, some way and make plays for myself and others.”
Brunson is coming off his best game of the season when he poured in 24 points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out three assists during Monday’s 130-124 victory over the Orlando Magic. The 6-3, 190-pounder was 9-of-13 from the field for 69.5 percent.
That’s the highest shooting percent for Brunson in a game this season when he’s attempted at least six shots. And the nine made field goals ties for the second-most he’s converted in a game this season besides the 11 he made Jan. 3 at Chicago.
The Mavs, who are 17-16 and will host Oklahoma City on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., are 8-2 in their last 10 games and are playing their best ball of the season. And during that time, Brunson is averaging 14.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists, and is shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
Overall, Brunson is averaging 12.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists, and converting 53.4 percent of his field goals and 41.9 percent of his 3-point attempts, and a massive 60.1 percent of his two-point field goals.
Coach Rick Carlisle recalls how Brunson wasn’t exactly up to par during the Las Vegas Summer League as a rookie in 2018.
“The thing about Brunson is that he’s really come a long way,” Carlisle said. “It didn’t just happen for him. He had to make a lot of adjustments. He’s worked to change his body, he’s worked to change his game to adapt to the NBA 3-point line and beyond.
“Now he’s an effective scorer at all three levels. He was very much a mid-range player when he came (to the NBA). He’s learned a lot about defense, and the work that he’s done – his strength, body development, quickness, all those kinds of things – has helped make him a very solid defender.”
And as the Mavs have overcome their coronavirus issues during the last 10 games, Brunson has noticed a collective up-tick in their overall game.
“It’s been great for us because we’ve been communicating with each other night-in and night-out,” he said. “From the coaching side to the players that are on the court to the players on the bench getting ready, it’s constant communicating, constant striving to be better, and we’re just trying to hold each other accountable as best we can.”
As for himself staying ready to hop off the bench and contribute in his role, Brunson has a ritual that he faithfully follows.
“It’s more mental than anything else,” he said. “For me, game days you try to do the same thing.
“I make sure I talk to my mom, I make sure I talk to my dad – just about strategic things on what I can do to obviously play off one of the best players in the game right now (in Luka Doncic).”
Ironically, Doncic – drafted third overall in 2018 – and Brunson joined the Mavs from the same draft class.
“We got Luka with the third pick and we got Brunson in the second round,” Carlisle said. “What a draft! (Mavs general manager) Donnie Nelson was at his phenomenal best during that draft.”
Although Brunson was accustomed to having the ball in his hands a lot at Villanova, adjustments and sacrifices had to be made once he joined the Mavs.
“Obviously, Luka is going to have the ball a lot,” Brunson said. “So how am I going to be effective when I don’t have the ball and how am I going to make plays on both sides of the floor? That’s all I worry about.
“I worry about just making plays and worry about what to do at the defensive end to make plays, because I know the offense is going to come, so I’m focusing on the task at hand. I just worry about the little things because I know everything is going to flow.”