After the first four games of Jalen Brunson’s Knicks career, it seems like he could be the answer to a question the team has been trying to answer for over a decade.
As the team’s starting point guard, Brunson has averaged 20 points, 8.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.0 steals while shooting 51.7% from the field and turning the ball over just 1.5 times per game. He’s been everything the team dreamed of and more.
Perhaps people are overreacting to four games. But after the collection of players the Knicks have used at point guard over the last dozen years, can you really blame people for being excited?
Since the start of the 2010 season, these are some of the players who have started at point guard (you’ll be forgiven for forgetting a few of them were actually on the team): Chris Duhon, Toney Douglas, Pablo Prigioni, Shane Larkin, Jose Calderon, Ramon Sessions, Emmanuel Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina, Jason Kidd, Langston Galloway, Trey Burke, Brandon Jennings, Dennis Smith Jr., Alonzo Trier, and Elfrid Payton.
These were not all guys picked off a scrap heap. Ntilikina was the 8th overall pick in 2017. Mudiay was the 7th pick in 2015. Burke was the 9th pick in 2013. Payton was the 10th pick in 2014, and Dennis Smith Jr was the 9th pick in 2017 and the prize of the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
Some of the names on that list seemed like decent gambles at the time. Payton was 25 years old and had never averaged fewer than 6.2 assists in any of his five previous seasons. Calderon was coming off of a four-year stretch where he averaged 10.8 points and 7.4 assists per game.
Others were less inspiring options even when they were signed. Sessions was 31 years old and just coming off a 28-game season. He also hadn’t averaged double-digit points in six years. Kidd was 39 years old and in his final NBA season.
Over that 12-year span, the two points guards who have been most successful were Raymond Felton and Brunson’s current teammate Derrick Rose.
Felton was averaging 17.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.0 assists, and 1.8 steals for Mike D’Antoni in 2011 when he was traded to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade. He came back to the Knicks in 2012-13 and averaged 13.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists for a Knicks team that finished first in the Atlantic.
Rose came to the Knicks in 2016 in his first year away from the Bulls and averaged 18.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in 64 games for a team that went 31-51. He then bounced around before the Knicks brought him back last season for Dennis Smith Jr. and a second-round pick.
The veteran has seen first-hand how Brunson has grown into the player he is today. Rose was playing for the Bulls while Brunson was tearing up the Chicago high school basketball circuit. Brunson, whose dad was an assistant coach, would come to the practices, and Rose and his teammates would often go watch Brunson play.
Now Rose is able to watch Brunson thrive as his teammate in New York.
Though the relationship between Brunson and the Knicks didn’t start off great. His contract was met with a tremendous amount of criticism in the offseason, with major outlets like Sports Illustrated claiming that “taking into account the cost, who else is on the Knicks and the lengths they went to obtain [Brunson], don’t be surprised if this pursuit ultimately backfires.”
Yet, amidst that, Brunson has put his head down and kept attacking, and his teammates have followed suit. “His demeanor is terrific for our team,” said head coach Tom Thibodeau.
That demeanor has manifested in a whole different pace of play for the Knicks. When Brunson gets the ball, he looks to push, hitting his teammates ahead to create transition baskets. New York currently ranks 16th in the league in pace of play and 5th in offensive efficiency. Last season, they were tied for 26th in pace and 22nd in offensive efficiency.
It’s an entirely different team when Brunson is on the floor. He’s second on the team in +/- with a +30 rating, and his 5.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is 6th in the NBA among starters.
In the halfcourt, Brunson attacks the basket with an array of moves and craftiness that makes up for his lack of size. However, when he finds a smaller defender on him, Brunson has no hesitation in playing physical and backing him down.
Jalen Brunson is worth every penny. pic.twitter.com/6NgEvw1GY2
— Hilltop Hoops (@HilltopNBA) October 27, 2022
“That’s who he is,” said Thibodeau. “Whatever the game needs, that’s what he does.”
At the end of the day, that determination and desire to compete is what has been most infectious about the Knicks’ new point guard.
“Everyone has trust in me, and I put my trust in them and we continue to work every day,” said Brunson. “Once they see how invested I am, it’s kind of easy to play with somebody who all he wants to do is win.”
You can see that investment in countless ways during the start to the season. Whether it’s Evan Fournier competing on defense. Julius Randle diving for loose balls, or the second unit led by Immanuel Quickly and Obi Toppin playing at a relentless pace. This team has the look of one that won’t shy away from hard work and struggles.
That was most evident when the team blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead against the Hornets at home, going down by as much as five late in the game, but still battled back to force overtime and win the game.
“To deal with adversity in a positive way…Finding a way to win, whatever we gotta do. Whether you gotta get three stops in a row, or get an offensive rebound, or you gotta get a block, or hustle, don’t quit on a play. All of those things, it all does matter,” said Thibodeau after that game. “I like the look of determination, and I think a lot of that comes from Jalen.”
His impact on the team has been so immediate that it’s easy to think of him as some sort of missing piece. But even Brunson admits that he’s still learning. “I’m still learning my teammates; I’m still learning everything.”
Given how successful the early part of the season has been, the thought of the Knicks continuing to grow and improve is one that has the city buzzing. It’s fair to wonder if Brunson is feeling any sense of validation when he hears the raucous Madison Square Garden crowd chanting his name.
“I’ll reflect back on that when I retire. Right now I’m taking it one game at a time.”
That’s fine for him, but Knicks fans can be forgiven for finally allowing themselves to look toward the future with hope.
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