When the Knicks made Jalen Brunson their main priority this offseason, there were more than a few fans and basketball analysts who raised an eyebrow at the move.
They worried about his fit next to RJ Barrett or were skeptical because Brunson had never been a primary scoring option before. They doubted that he was a natural point guard for this offense. While the skepticism was persistent, there was one man who never seemed to doubt that Brunson was the right target for the Knicks: his new coach, Tom Thibodeau.
Perhaps nobody’s opinion matters more. Not only because Thibodeau is the man tasked with ensuring Brunson meshes well with his new team, but because there are few people who know the Knicks’ new point guard better than his new coach.
“The advantage is knowing him basically his whole life,” explained Thibodeau before an early Knicks preseason game. While Thibodeau was serving as a Knicks assistant coach in the late 90s, “Jalen was in the locker room in New York as a six-year-old kid. You watch him grow up, so you know him because of the relationship of knowing the dad and him being in the gym.”
Jalen’s father, Rick, was a former McDonald’s All-American and a point guard in the NBA for nine seasons, including two seasons in New York between 1998-2000 when Thibodeau was an assistant with the Knicks. When Thibodeau later took over as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 2010, he brought Brunson on as an assistant, and the two coached together for three of the next four years.
Thibodeau also brought Brunson onto his Knicks staff this season after the elder Brunson left the NBA in 2019 to take over as the head coach of Camden High School in New Jersey, where he would go 73-4 over three seasons.
However, their time together in Chicago is where Thibodeau really saw Jalen Brunson take his game to another level.
“Yeah, he was in high school [in Chicago], so I used to see him come into the gym and hang out with his dad. He also had a great relationship with Derrick [Rose],” who starred for the Bulls at the time. Jalen would “come into the locker room after the games and stuff like that, and I think that had a great impact on Jalen.”
As a native of Englewood, Chicago, Rose is something of a legend in the Chicago basketball circuit. He was a hometown hero long before he became the youngest MVP in league history, so he knew a little something about competing amidst the immense pressure of the Chicago high school basketball scene; something Jalen Brunson seemed capable of mastering as well.
“High school basketball in Chicago is very very strong,” explained Thibodeau “and the way [Jalen] dominated that is probably the first indication [that he could make the pros]… The [Bulls] players were always talking about it. A lot of the guys went to see him play and would come back and talk about it, so once you saw that, you thought, OK, you don’t know if he’s gonna be a pro, but he’s gonna be pretty good.”
And he was pretty good throughout his three-year college career at Villanova and his four years in the NBA, mostly as a reserve for the Mavericks. But he took a clear step forward last season as a near full-time starter, averaging 16.3 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Then, when Luka Doncic missed the majority of the first-round playoff series against Utah, Brunson stepped up, averaging 27.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists during the series. It was the first indication for many that the 25-year-old was capable of being the focal point of a team, but it was just confirmation of what Thibodeau had long since known.
“I watched him grow at Villanova and then when he got into the pros,” Thibodeau said. “There’s nothing that he does that surprises me.”
Through just two preseason games with his new team, it’s apparent that Thibodeau’s confidence in his new point guard is not misplaced. Brunson and Barrett have fed off of each other well, attacking the basket and setting each other up for open three-point looks. In just 21.5 minutes per game, Brunson is averaging 16.5 points on 52.4% shooting, while chipping in 4.5 assists.
He’s displayed consistently high energy and assertiveness, attacking his defenders head-on and pushing the ball up the court at any opportunity. It’s carried over to his teammates, who are playing at a much faster pace than last season and are using their defense to set up consistent fastbreak opportunities.
“He’s always had that about him,” recalls Thibodeau, “whether it was high school or college or the pros; he’s not gonna change in his demeanor.”
That might be exactly what this Knicks team needs to take its play to the next level, doubters be damned.