June 21, 2018 will always be a date that will go down in franchise history.

Coming off two seasons with a combined 57 wins, the Mavericks were due for their second top-10 pick in back-to-back years. Except this time, it was the fifth overall pick in the draft. They desperately needed another young piece to accelerate the rebuild.

But before Adam Silver could even get to the third pick in the draft, Dallas made its move by trading up two spots for international sensation Luka Doncic. He was their guy. Scouting him since his early teenage years, they couldn’t pass up the chance of landing the next potential superstar in the NBA.

Now, roughly eight months since draft day, Doncic has exceeded all expectations as he looks to be on his way to a Rookie of the Year award in a loaded class. He is the face of the franchise and someone fans envision wearing a Mavericks jersey for the next two decades.

But June 21, 2018 will also be remembered by someone else on the team for a whole different reason.

Jalen Brunson was a 21-year-old who had just finished his junior season at Villanova University. Not only did he wrap up his third campaign, but he finished another season atop the college basketball world by winning another national championship during his college tenor. It was his second in three years. And winning is exactly what matters most to Brunson.

“Everybody knows about Jalen’s accolades, great performances, and overall success at Villanova, but what made him so appreciated and respected was how that individual stuff was all secondary, by a large margin, to winning,” Matt Fraschilla, graduate assistant at Villanova said on his time coaching Brunson.

This special trait came to light on the biggest stage of Brunson’s career. Brunson was coming off National Player of the Year and Big East award honors as the leader of a Villanova team that was shooting for its second title in three years. He was the point guard and leader of the team. But on the biggest stage, Brunson didn’t shoot the ball well and picked up two early fouls in the National Championship game.

It was then that Brunson’s character and leadership was most evident.

“He was just as into the game and his teammates as if he was playing his best game,” Fraschilla said. “He always put his teammates ahead of himself and that will be his legacy at Villanova forever.”

Jalen, son of former NBA player Rick Brunson, entered the draft after winning that second National Championship. A 21-year-old point guard who wasn’t the biggest or the quickest nor did have a long wingspan or the “young age.” Projected all over the draft board by analysts around the country, the first round ended without Brunson’s name being called.

“On our board, we had him going in the first round,” Michael Finley, assistant vice president of basketball operations said on draft night. Rick Carlisle would add to it by saying they were “surprised” that Brunson lasted into the second round and that they believed that Brunson would be chosen in the 20s.

Why was Brunson higher on their draft board? Relationships mean everything. With the Mavericks having Team USA roots through their director of player personnel, Tony Ronzone, the organization had built a solid relationship with Villanova head coach Jay Wright. It was through that relationship with Wright that Dallas got the intel they needed on Brunson. With Wright being a straight shooter, they knew the praise coming from Brunson’s head coach was praise they could rely on.

Sitting with the third pick in the second round, Brunson wasn’t lasting past Dallas.

“When Jalen was still there at 33 we thought it was a blessing for us,” Finley said. “We had a great opportunity to get a great young player and we jumped right on that.”

With the 33rd pick in the draft, Jalen Brunson became a Dallas Maverick.

But it was clear from the start that Brunson would have an uphill battle to get playing time in Dallas after running the point guard spot his whole life. Dallas had just drafted Dennis Smith Jr. ninth overall the year before and just moved up in the draft to select Luka Doncic, who is a 6-foot-8 point guard in his own right. On top of that, J.J. Barea would be returning along with the uncertain situations at the time with Devin Harris and Yogi Ferrell. In the introductory press conference, the G League was even brought up when talking about Brunson in his rookie season.

“We will see what takes place with the G League,” Carlisle said on draft night. “He is a guy that has been underestimated many times and has a knack for proving people wrong. Proving people that he does belong and that he can play at a high level. I know he will compete hard and push Dennis and Barea.”

A few weeks later, Brunson wore “Mavericks” across his chest for the first time as the Mavericks headed to Las Vegas to compete in Summer League. But it wasn’t the prettiest for Brunson, as he averaged a little over six points on 10-of-44 shooting (23 percent) from the field. He knew he had a lot of work to do to have an impact in the league in his rookie season.

Since then, much like Doncic, Brunson has exceeded all expectations.

“I go back to Summer League where he had some struggles but studied what happened, learned from it and got better,” Rick Carlisle said at practice after the All-Star break. It was an early point in Brunson’s career they all look back on as it shows the progress he has made in just eight short months.

Of the current Mavericks on the team, Brunson is fifth in minutes played on the season and has started 21 games. In a matter of months, Brunson went from a developmental third point guard off the bench to a key rotational piece who can start at multiple spots. And it’s that versatility that has allowed him to be better than what many imagined.

It doesn’t normally work like that. On paper, Brunson didn’t fit the Swiss army knife build. He was a single, well-defined tool coming out of college — a 6-foot-3 guard with a relatively short wingspan and average athleticism that has managed the game from the point guard spot his entire life. But Villanova, and now the Mavericks, saw more than that and Brunson has proven them right.

“He’d probably agree with me and anyone else that says he’s not going to be the most athletic player on the floor, but he beats people with having great footwork, body control, and knowledge of angles on the floor,” Fraschilla said. “That all comes from years of reps and studying, which he has definitely put the work in to do.”

It is the intangibles that you can’t teach, the natural feel for the game and the basketball IQ.

“The knock on the kid was he’s short with a lack of speed and doesn’t have a long wing span, can’t jump, etc.…” Ronzone said. “The thing you can’t teach is desire to lead and win.” And when things get tough or change is taking place, having a stable force like Brunson makes all the difference. For the Mavericks in particular, the back court has been hit with everything you could imagine over the past eight months.

In the first game of the season, Dennis Smith Jr. manned the starting point guard spot with Luka Doncic and Wesley Matthews on the wing. Smith’s backup was franchise favorite, J.J. Barea, who logged over 20 minutes on opening night. Over time, Smith suffered from injuries and sickness, Doncic began to get more time at point guard, and J.J. Barea suffered a season-ending injury to his Achilles. Then, Dallas made a blockbuster trade sending Smith and Matthews to New York. The roles in the backcourt were changing more often than Doncic changes his shoes during games.

Through all of it, though, Brunson was ready for anything thrown his way.

“He has had a lot of different types of roles this year, everything from being a ‘stay ready’ depth bench guy to being a primary rotation guy off the bench,” Carlisle said. “And then he started a lot of games too. One of the great things about him is that he is ready for anything. He will always be ready and he is very professional for a guy who is a first-year player.”

Always being ready comes natural for Brunson, but what he’s had to learn over the course of his rookie season is the mental toughness that comes with it. “It is a different mental toughness. You have to be ready for anything,” Brunson said. “You can play 30 minutes one night and zero the next. And you have to be ready down the line for some big minutes. Always staying mentally ready is the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make. I think I’ve done a pretty good job at it but it is definitely tough.”

With Luka Doncic taking over the point guard spot in the offense, Brunson has shown the ability to play off the ball as a secondary playmaker in Carlisle’s system, something not every point guard can adapt to so easily in the NBA. One thing that has allowed Brunson to play off the ball so effectively is his ability to shoot from behind the arc.

In college, Brunson was a career 39 percent shooter from three while shooting 40 percent during his junior season at Villanova. Even though Brunson struggled with his outside shot early in the season, Brunson has shot 25 of 58 (43.1 percent) from deep since Jan. 9. On spot-up shots in general, Brunson is scoring at a rate of 1.01 PPP, which is in the 56th percentile in the league according to Synergy.

“He stretched out his game where he is now a consistent 3-point threat,” Carlisle said of his improvement. And that growth can be traced back to some of his first comments as a member of the Mavericks. In his first media session, this was what Brunson had to say in regards to the area of his game that he was going to focus on getting better at. “The 3 is obviously a deadly component in today’s NBA and I am working on it every day,” Brunson said.

Now, he is one of the best 3-point shooters on the team.

But don’t think Brunson can score from just the outside. One of the more underrated parts of his game is his ability to use his body and footwork in the post for a point guard, something he did going back to his days at Villanova.

“I think it’s pretty well known at this point how well he understands the game, but I’d say people may not realize how good his attention to detail to the small details, like footwork, is, and is what makes him so good,” Fraschilla said.

Carlisle added to that on draft night by saying, “Something you notice right away is a lot of posting up of other point guards. He uses strength and footwork to create separation and space. He has a collection of fadeaway shots. That just shows the resourcefulness,” Carlisle said.

And the stats have backed it up. Of the Mavericks that have had at least 10 post up possessions this year, Brunson is scoring at 1.143 PPP on 63 percent from the field, both the highest on the team.

As for the positive impact he has on the court, Brunson is in the only five-man lineup with a positive net rating of the top three most played lineups since the Porzingis trade on January 31. Of the 21 two-man lineups that have played at least 490 minutes together this season for the Mavericks, Brunson and Maxi Kleber have the highest net rating of the bunch. And that is including every player that has suited up for the Mavericks this season.

Defensively, Brunson has raised a lot of eyebrows across the league. With a minimum of 30 isolation possessions, Brunson is allowing opponents to score at just 0.718 PPP, which is 30th in the league. While being the primary defender guarding the pick and roll ball handler on at least 160 possessions, Brunson is 22nd in the league in allowing opponents to score at just 0.817 PPP according to Synergy.

Rick Carlisle went out of his way to praise Brunson’s defense after the all-star break, “defensively he is very solid. He is one of our better perimeter defenders,” Carlisle said.

But the most important part of Brunson’s game isn’t his ability to play off the ball nor is it his outside shooting or ability to run the offense. It is the unique leadership traits and character that the rookie has that sets him apart from your normal rookie. Something that has been evident since his time at Villanova.

“Jalen exhibited a great combination of vocal leadership and leading by example,” Fraschilla said on Brunson at Villanova. “He was able to command respect without saying a word, just because you knew how much work he put in to be as good as he is, and he not only always knew what his position was doing, but everybody else on the floor’s as well. At the same time, he never shied away from coaching or critiques; he took that on with humility and with a desire to improve.”

This isn’t something you see every day from players coming out of college. The willingness to take on critiques with the mindset to get better. That humility and leadership by example was something that attracted the front office from the start.

“Leadership is the toughest thing to find with college kids coming into draft at early age,” Tony Ronzone, the director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks said. “The three years of college was huge for JB as he’s coming into the NBA with maturity and already a winner at college level.”

Ronzone went on to tell a story about how he coached Jalen’s dad, Rick Brunson, in an overseas tournament in Lebanon. He praised Rick’s determination and work ethic as he fought as a fringe player in the NBA.

“JB has been around NBA players and also got that tough mind set from his dad,” Ronzone said. “Also, JB being from Michael Finley’s hometown area of Chicago helped us as we know how tough Finley was on and off the court.”

And Finley was one of his biggest supporters on draft night after the Mavericks selected him.

“He has won on every level and from high school to college,” Finley said. Carlisle added in, “the kid has basically been a coach on the floor.”

“That winning trait he has and that type of attitude is what made us more attracted to him,” Finley continued. “Even though he was in college, he was a professional. He had a professional demeanor about himself and a very confident young man. Confident in what he brings to the table on and off the court. When we seen we had the opportunity to drafted him, everybody was on the edge of their chairs. It was a unanimous decision to take him,” Finley added.

Much was made about a pre-draft conversation with Brunson that left the organization impressed. As each organization took their allotted time to speak to each prospect, the Mavs found themselves going up to the final buzzer with Brunson.

“When we spoke to him we had a 35 minute interview,” Carlisle said. “Some of the interviews get over a little early. We stayed with this kid all the way through until the phone rang to indicate it was time to switch. He was great and had great views on the game. It is important to get guys that love to play when you are rebuilding.”

On top of that, getting players that are natural born leaders like Brunson are key to a rebuild…and Brunson knows that. “I think with my character and the things I can do from a leader standpoint is a big part of good teams,” Brunson said. “Good teams always have that guy, no matter if he is a top guy or not, there is a guy on that team that keeps everybody together.” Carlisle echoed that statement on draft night when talking about Brunson’s leadership qualities, “Those kinds of characteristics are really important when you are in a rebuild.”

Brunson might not know his exact role at all times, but his leadership will always be there as he is ready for anything Carlisle throws his way. “Whatever the team needs. Going forward I am just trying to play aggressive and be a good leader. Do whatever Coach Carlisle needs,” Brunson said.

But Brunson is a second-round pick, and those players aren’t supposed to have this type of impact, let alone the maturity and leadership. Of the players selected in the second round of the 2018 Draft, Brunson is one of only two players that have logged over 900 minutes. He is also first in points, first in assists, fourth in rebounds, and second in 3-point percentage among the second-rounders.

For the 2018 Draft as a whole, Brunson has logged more minutes than 16 of the first-round picks. He has more total points than 17 first rounders and more assists than 25 first rounders. As for 3-point percentage, Brunson’s 35.1 percent is sixth among all rookies who have attempted 100 or more threes. As for more “well-known” names in the draft, Brunson is shooting a higher 3-point percentage than Trae Young, scoring more points per game than Miles Bridges and shooting a higher field goal percentage than Collin Sexton. I think it is safe to say that Brunson should have been a first-round pick. But that never mattered to Brunson, whose approach was never going to change.

“I knew that I was going to work hard wherever I went,” Brunson said. “No matter if I was the first pick or undrafted. I don’t think it ever mattered where I got drafted, my mindset was going to stay the same.” That mindset is a mindset of thankfulness and motivation.

“This is a different challenge and I like where I am at because I know I have so much more left in the tank and I know where I can get better. I am just happy to get this experience and opportunity,” Brunson said. And when this season is over, expect a much-improved Brunson after the summer he has planned. “I think I am just going to watch film this summer. Watch all of my games this year. See what I did and just work hard and get in even better shape. Find ways to get myself better.”

On the area he wants to focus on the most this summer: “everything.”

The 2018 NBA Draft for the Dallas Mavericks is defined as the Luka Doncic Draft from the outside, but from the inside, the 2018 NBA Draft is viewed as the draft the Mavs landed both Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson, two key building blocks for the future.

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