Nobody would have blamed Jalen Brunson if he made his initial steps into the NBA last season with a huge chip on his shoulders.
After all, Brunson was the consensus National College Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American in 2018 after leading the Villanova Wildcats to their second NCAA title during a three-year span. Billboards hung up around Philadelphia in Brunson’s honor.
Plus, Brunson was not only the big man on campus. He was college’s basketball consensus big man.
But when the NBA Draft rolled around last year, Brunson was effectively snubbed. So much so he didn’t get drafted until the second round, when the Dallas Mavericks nabbed the point guard with the 33rd overall pick.
However, instead of griping about missing out on all the big guarantee money that goes to first-round draft picks, Brunson went out and proved the talent evaluators wrong by becoming a major rotation player for the Mavs. That, in essence, was his way of getting the last word.
“No matter where I went in the draft my mindset wouldn’t have changed,” Brunson said. “A chip on my shoulder wouldn’t have changed, my work ethic wouldn’t have changed.
“No matter where you get drafted, we were all rookies last year. We all had to prove ourselves, and I think I proved myself a little bit, but I still think there’s much to improve on and much to get better at.”
Certainly, Brunson got progressively better last season from when he struggled mightily during summer league play in 2018. But when point guard JJ Barea suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon and point guard Dennis Smith Jr. was traded to the New York Knicks – all during the month of January – it was as if a lightbulb went off in Brunson’s head.
The 6-3 playmaker saw an opportunity for some increased playing time, and he subsequently seized the moment.
“His rookie summer league seems like lightyears away,” coach Rick Carlisle said after Saturday’s practice at the Lympo practice facilities. “He’s going to be one of our really valuable players as a multiple position guy – a guy that plays well on both sides of the ball.”
Following a year in which he finished his college basketball season, did pre-draft workouts for various teams, got drafted, played summer league basketball, competed for minutes as a rookie last season and finished his college degree, Brunson allowed himself to experience some down time earlier this past summer.
“It went by fast,” Brunson said, referring to the offseason. “Apr. 10 (the end of last season) now seems like yesterday, but it was a really good offseason. I got my mind away from basketball for a little bit. I got my mental right, and physically, mentally I worked my way back in shape.”
Brunson noted that he got mentally right by dabbling in golf for the first time. And what was his best score?
“Trust me, I can’t keep the score,” Brunson said while laughing. “I just got some new clubs. That’s going to be my go-to.”
Told that teammate Seth Curry shot an 81 last Sunday, Brunson said: “Seth’s been playing forever. I’m not ready for that. I will be, though.”
Other than playing golf, Brunson said of his summer: “I stayed around the Jersey shore all summer with my family. Being around the beach — and not necessarily being on the beach — just cleared my mind. I don’t know how. It just does.”
Brunson also was on the USA Basketball Select Team that worked out in Las Vegas this past summer against the national team. His selection along increased his profile, this time on an international platform.
“It was a great experience,” Brunson said. “Jeff Van Gundy was the coach. It was cool.
“My biggest takeaway from that was if you get invited to USA Basketball, why should you lack confidence in yourself? Even though it’s a select team, that’s a big honor.”
Brunson wound up starting 38 of the 73 games he played for the Mavs last season and put up modest averages of 9.3 points and 3.2 assists while shooting 46.7 percent from the field. When asked if his desire is to start again this season, Brunson said:
“My goal is to do whatever the team needs. Obviously starting is a goal of mine, but I think winning can trump starting. Whatever it takes to win, I’m OK with that.
“I see my (role) expanding, I see myself making a jump. But at the same time we have some new pieces, we have some guys who are new to the system or who have been in this system. Coach Carlisle has a lot of trust in a lot of players here. I know he’s going to make the right decision and make sure that we’re successful.”
For Brunson, just knowing that he was successful in proving that if the NBA could re-do last year’s draft that he would indeed become a first-round pick is satisfaction enough for him.
“Sometimes things like this happen — people get overlooked for certain reasons,” Carlisle said. “If you’re lucky enough to get a guy like (Brunson), then you count your blessings and move on.
“I’m not big into coming up with reasons on why people missed on him. We liked him all along.”