OKLAHOMA CITY – No one had to pry any words out of the mouth of Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan in order to get him to tell what he really thinks of Dallas Mavericks rookie guard Jalen Brunson.
Donovan was the coach of Team USA in 2014, and Brunson was his star player. For Donovan, the memories of Brunson’s performances that year.
“He has the ‘it’ factor,” Donovan said prior to the Mavs upending the Thunder on Sunday afternoon, 106-103. “He’s just a winner. That’s the best way I can say it — he’s just a winner.
“I had him in crucial situations with the USA Team and coached him. He’s a great teammate, he understands very, very clearly what goes into winning, and he impacts winning. How do you break all that down? He just has it.”
Told that Donovan said he had that “it” factor, and asked what exactly does that mean, Brunson said: “That means I got it. “It” is whatever it means at that moment.
“I just play hard, and I try to play as hard as I can every possession and do whatever it takes to win.”
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle can certainly attest to what Donovan was saying in describing the grit and determination Brunson brings to the court.
“He’s a winner,” Carlisle said. “I think that’s what Billy means. Billy Donovan is well qualified to make those kinds of observation on players.
“He was a great college coach and is a great NBA coach. He can tell a winning player when he sees one.”
Donovan saw “a winning player” in Brunson, who helped Team USA win the gold medal in 2014 with a perfect 5-0 record. As far as the success Brunson has enjoyed in his first NBA season, it comes as no surprise to Donovan.
“I’m not here to say that (Brunson is) the best athlete in the world and the best 3-point shooter in the world or the most explosive point guard in the world,” Donovan said. “But he impacts winning.
“And I think that’s how I would classify him, So, I’m not one bit surprised.”
From afar, Donovan knew that Brunson’s minutes were limited earlier this season due to the Mavs’ starting backcourt duo of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr., plus veteran guard J. J. Barea has been of the mainstays for this franchise. But Barea had season-ending right Achilles tendon surgery on Jan. 14, and Smith was traded to the New York Knicks in Jan. 31.
That opened the doors for the Mavs to give Brunson more minutes, and he has responded admirably.
Donovan said: “I think for young players, when they get the opportunity to play — and he really didn’t have a great one early in the year with Dennis being there and then obviously with Doncic being there — it was probably a little bit harder, minutes-wise.
“But since some changes have been made it’s afforded him an opportunity. He’s the kind of guy that if you give him the opportunity he’s going to play well.”
Brunson noted that he learned a lot from Donovan. Enough that Brunson went on to help Villanova win two of the past three NCAA national titles.
“He was a really intense, really good coach,” Brunson said. “I connected well with him.
“He’s a really good coach and I loved playing for him at that time. We made a memory together by winning that gold medal, so it was pretty cool.”