One-on-One with Jalen Brunson

New Mavs rookie Jalen Brunson goes one-on-one with Mavs.com's Bobby Karalla and dishes on being drafted, what he's gonna buy with his first contract, and playing with Dirk!

When I watch Jalen Brunson, the first player I think of is J.J. Barea, his new teammate.

Neither can go 100 miles an hour, but both have the handles, court awareness, body control, and a bevy of finishing moves around the basket to compensate for not being a world-class sprinter. Brunson spent three years dominating the NCAA at Villanova, capping off his junior seasons by earning National Player of the Year and Consensus First Team All-American honors along with his second national championship. Players who achieved that level of success in college don’t usually slip to the second round, but here we are. Perhaps his athleticism is a reason why. Barea, for what it’s worth, isn’t a burner either, although he’s extremely quick and his size only exacerbates it.

Whatever the reason Brunson slipped out of the first round, the Mavericks are not complaining. Michael Finley said Dallas had a first-round grade on the three-year college star, so by the time the Mavs went on the clock in round two, they wrote his name down on the card and didn’t look back. Brunson becomes the third rookie point guard in three years in Dallas, following in the footsteps of Yogi Ferrell and Dennis Smith Jr., each of whom received All-Rookie Second Team honors. Smith, in particular, is considered a potential foundation piece for the future — and Barea just had the best season of his career at age 33, at the same position — but Brunson isn’t worried about competing for minutes. In fact, he’s looking forward to it, a fact which won over the Mavs’ brass at the Combine in Chicago.

If Brunson is anything like Barea, he’s going to have plenty of fans within the organization. Unlike the Puerto Rican veteran, Brunson is entering the NBA as a drafted player with a contract. But just as Barea did in 2006, Brunson will enter training camp with established players ahead of him. Devin Harris was still the young point guard of the future when Barea came to camp 12 years ago, and veterans like Jason Terry and Anthony Johnson took their fair share of point guard minutes as well. Brunson will face a similar challenge this fall, but he’s looking forward to it. And, on a Rick Carlisle-coached team, the fail-safe cheat code to gaining respect and earning minutes is to have an NBA skill. What can you do at a high level? Can you shoot 3s? Can you protect the rim? Are you good enough at your best talent to earn minutes while the coaching staff develops the rest of your game? In Brunson’s case, his NBA skill is running the pick-and-roll. And as for whether he’s good enough to play right away, that’s up to him to prove in the coming months. But from where I sit, the answer for now appears to be yes.

By the numbers

The 2017-18 Villanova Wildcats had one of the most dominant offenses we’ve seen in quite some time in college basketball. They thumped opponents all season long en route to their second national title in three years. (Brunson was the starting point guard for both of them.) As a team, Nova sank 11.4 3-pointers per game, fourth in the country, and shot 39.8 percent from beyond the arc (T-20th). The Wildcats also shot an absurd 59.7 percent on 2-pointers, which ranked second in the nation. All in all, they averaged 1.1 points per possession last season, which led the entire country — and not just Division I. Synergy Sports logged possessions for 1,496 men’s college basketball teams last season, and Villanova led them all in points per possession.

Brunson was the engine that made it all work. It’s difficult to comprehend that he was the fourth player drafted off his own team, but everyone profited from Brunson’s work as point guard. He led the team in scoring at 18.9 points per game; only one other player averaged more than 13.4. He led the team in assists at 4.6 per game; only one other averaged more than 2.9. Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman were all drafted ahead of Brunson, but his work as the tip of the most imposing spear in college basketball helped to lift each of his teammates into the first round.

Villanova put up video game numbers as a team, and Brunson did the same as an individual. He ranked in the 98th percentile nationwide in overall points per possession and in the 99th percentile when including points created by assists. He ranked in the 96th percentile when scoring as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, the 96th percentile when scoring in isolation, 98th when posting up, and 83rd when spotting up as a shooter. When combining his possessions and his assists, he generated 1.467 points per possession for Villanova, which ranked 25th out of nearly 3,000 players Synergy logged a possession for last season. Those are all absurd numbers.

Facilitating

Today’s NBA game requires ball-handlers to be scoring threats first, or else opponents can shut down the pick-and-roll with relative ease. If you can’t shoot, they can go under. If you can’t finish, they can go over. If your teammates can’t shoot the 3, they can clog the lane. Everything starts with scoring.

I’m going to tell this story in reverse, though. Brunson can shoot, and he can finish, but like his new teammate Barea, Brunson devastated opposing defenses in college by getting right into the middle of them and then making his decision. Villanova enabled its star point guard to take complete control of the offense, especially late in games, by spreading the floor like a pro team and surrounding him with 3-point shooting. By the time he was a junior, Brunson had such an incredible awareness of where each of his teammates was, and what the defense was thinking, that he was able to shred opponents without even having to score. The Wildcats wanted to shoot 3s and get dunks; they played an NBA-style game. Therefore, if he turned the corner off a screen and you were off-balance in any way, it was already over.

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Brunson never panics when reading the floor, even when facing pressure. He might not play extremely fast relative to guys like John Wall, but he’s able to play under complete control at his maximum speed and that makes defenders uncomfortable. (Although he’s not going to beat Dennis Smith Jr. in a 100-meter dash, Brunson is quick. He posted the third-best lane agility time at the Combine — outperforming his teammate DiVincenzo — and has a 37-inch vertical leap. He’s definitely an athlete.) His eyes are always moving and, more importantly, he never picks up his dribble unless he knows a passing lane is about to be there. Nova gave Brunson the entire floor to work with, which allowed him to get to exactly where he wanted to go, then let him feel out where his teammates would be. (Unfortunately in these two examples they couldn’t convert, but the looks were there.)

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He’s not able to blaze right past his opponents, but by manipulating his eyes, taking angles, and using dribble-moves and ball-fakes to free up some breathing room, Brunson is able to do whatever he wants to. He averaged 4.6 assists per game, a number that’s not going to jump off the page, but if D-I tracked secondary assists, I would guess Brunson would rank very, very high on that list. He’d swing it to DiVincenzo or Bridges or Spellman or any one of Villanova’s over excellent shooters, the defense would overreact, and they’d dump it off to another teammate for a jumper.

Using his strong frame to score

Again, you can be the best passer in the world, but if you can’t score, the defense isn’t going to worry about you. Brunson can score, though. He was often under command of the offense late in tight games, and that’s when he did some of his best work.

If you’re a point guard driving the lane, you’d better be fearless. Brunson is 6-foot-2 so he’s not going to regularly throw down dunks on Rudy Gobert, but he’s got a strong frame and isn’t afraid to use it either to barrel into bigger guys or steamroll smaller ones. It’s kind of corny to draw too many conclusions about a player’s personality from random plays you see when watching tape, but these are fearless drives.

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When you turn the corner and can see or feel a big man licking his chops, you know you’re about to get sent to the floor. But Brunson took his beatings and still finished anyway. He shot 70.9 percent at the rim last season, according to The Stepien.

If he couldn’t get all the way to the rim, he was happy to pull up from the mid-range. One of his favorite moves was a spin into a fadeaway, which is yet another component of his game that reminds me of Barea.

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What makes that a difficult shot is it’s nearly impossible for your average point guard to contest because Brunson has such a big frame and a high release point. He pulled off the same move in both drives in robotic fashion, as well, and that’s a compliment. This is clearly something he’s put a lot of time into working on, and the results paid off. Brunson shot 56.8 percent on short mid-range shots, per The Stepien, and 44.8 percent on long mid-range Js. NBA teams don’t want to take too many mid-range jumpers, but sometimes that’s the only option available. Plus, if you can hit that spinning 10-foot fadeaway 56 percent of the time, defenders are likely gonna stick just a couple inches closer to you, which could open up another option somewhere else.

There’s a lot to like about Brunson’s game and personality. He seems like one of those “OKG” (Our Kinda Guys) guys in Dallas — a J.J. Barea copycat in a 6-foot-2 body is a pretty good starting point. Brunson is going to learn from one of the best in Barea, and Dennis Smith Jr. is no slouch in the pick-and-roll game either. Each of those guys brings a unique interpretation of the game to the fold, and when used in combination with one another and Luka Doncic, the Mavs could have one of the more interesting stable of playmakers in the league. Smith is by far the fastest, and at this point he and Barea are the most dynamic scorers of the bunch, but they can each read the floor and find shooters extremely well, and Dallas has no shortage of 3-point shooting. That alone is going to create wider driving lanes for the ball-handlers to exploit, and if the club can add another big-time rim-runner like Dwight Powell to the mix, that’s only going to help as well.

I don’t know where in the rotation Brunson is going to fall. He’s facing some stiff competition at his own position, let alone from other guys who play 2-guard or like to handle the ball. But Brunson has made it clear that he’s not afraid, which has already earned him a fan in Rick Carlisle before the games have even begun. And after having a stellar three-year career at Villanova where everything he touched turned to gold, it’s tough to doubt Brunson will find a way to make it work at the next level.

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