Jalen Brunson exits Villanova with one of the most distinguished college basketball resumes, not only from the Main Line, but also around the whole country. On the court, he’s embodied a basketball maturity and mind well beyond his years. He started on two different National Championship teams. He topped off his collegiate career as a consensus National Player of the Year pick, becoming the first-ever Wildcat to do so in program history. He’s racked up 1,667 career points in just three seasons. This past year, he led the way with a team-high average of 18.9 points and 4.6 assists. As good as his numbers and accomplishments are, will he be able to add first round draft pick to his long list of accolades?
Brunson’s Career Stats
When Brunson has the ball in his hands, there is very little reason to worry. His poised demeanor translates a certain calmness over to his teammates, his coaching staff, and fans watching the game. The way he is able to orchestrate the floor and dictate the pace, he always seems to be in control. Brunson is a great decision-maker, knowing when to call his own number or when to defer to a teammate that may be in a better position to score. He rarely makes mistakes and minimizes turnovers. Brunson sees the floor at an elite level, boasting great court vision and a feel for where his teammates are at all times. The 6-foot-3 floor general is a great passer, finding the open man, but one that can also zip the ball through small windows to his teammates. He’s a smooth facilitator and can throw defenses off with the way he can hit cutters or the roll man off pick-and-rolls. Since he first stepped onto the court as a freshman, this has been one of Brunson’s brightest spots to his game and since then, he’s only evolved as a playmaker.
When he’s not assisting or setting up teammates, Brunson can punish opponents in a variety of ways. He’s a talented scorer, one that can do so from nearly anywhere on the court. According to the Stepien shot chart, Brunson’s smooth shooting stroke is translatable to the NBA. Over 70 percent of his takes from beyond the arc were actually in NBA range. Of those deep three-point attempts, he converted on 35 percent of them, a decent clip for someone that has yet to play a single minute on a NBA court. He can pull up on catch-and-shoot plays or off the dribble. He has excellent footwork, handles, and is savvy enough to create his own space or shed off a defender with a variety of moves--whether it’s a spin, jab step, crossover, hesitation move, or euro step. He doesn’t need much space to get his shot off, and he can make the tough contested shots fall. When it comes to attacking the basket and finishing at the rim, Brunson is one of the best around. This past season, he made just over 70 percent of his shots at the rim, placing him in the 95th percentile of all college basketball guards. He isn’t afraid to shy away from contact and can twist his body around to help him finish through traffic. Apart from all this, Brunson is a reliable player at the free throw line, converting 82.0 percent of foul shots throughout his three years at ‘Nova.
Brunson doesn’t really have the physical tools to be a great defender. He doesn’t have outstanding size, nor does he have great length. He doesn’t generate or force turnovers. He was capable of holding his own in college and had the help that came with being a member of one of the top defensive teams around the entire landscape, but how will he fare in the NBA? His size limits his defensive versatility, as he’d only be able to truly guard opposing point guards. He might get exposed or outmatched going against other positions or bigger matchups if he’s forced to switch onto another player, making him a liability on that front. NBA scouts want to see that versatility in the pros. It isn’t entirely problematic, as there are a handful of point guards that aren’t the biggest and have been burned defensively. Not going to cherry-pick and go with the obvious example in Isaiah Thomas, but Damian Lillard, D.J. Augustin, and Cory Joseph all come to mind as not-so-big point guards that received substantial playing time and contributed, but were among the worst defensively—according to a variety of advanced NBA statistics. It proves that Brunson can certainly be productive and contribute, but he will raise some questions in this department moving forward.
So far, the college basketball world has seen Brunson make some amazing plays. He’s had the ankle breakers, the smooth euro step finishes, and the key three-pointers. He’s been able to do this without the lightning-quick speed, size, length, and explosiveness. What he lacks physically, he’s been able to compensate mentally and with a certain savvy that embodies a captain or National Player of the Year. He’s shown off his strength, being able to back down--and who would have thought entering this season--to be one of Villanova’s top players in the post. A point guard, backing down his man? It’s not something you see everyday, but he has the footwork and the cleverness to make it happen. Would that fly in the NBA? Not so sure that a point guard posting up is going to work as well as it did in college, but it’s just one example of Brunson using his smarts to compensate for what he physically doesn’t have. Hard work and great technique can only go so far before talent and physicality takes over. NBA scouts have worried about his lack of speed and lateral quickness and how that might translate to the higher tempo of play at the next level.
Brunson has the NBA in his DNA, with his father undergoing an 11-year professional career that included a variety of teams. Aside from that, his father has also been around the game as a coach. Brunson has seen the game up close for essentially his whole life and his father has served as a personal coach and mentor of sorts. He’s familiar with what it takes to play in the NBA. His maturity as a player and a long, deep resume is more than enough to make him a coveted player for NBA teams. He’s a winner and has been a key cog in Villanova’s recent success.
As good as he has been at the collegiate level, he isn’t a surefire first-round pick. Various mock drafts have put him in the late-first round to second round range. It also doesn’t help playing an over-saturated position like point guard. Brunson has worked out for the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, and Utah Jazz. The Pacers, Celtics, Spurs, and Jazz would be interesting, as Brunson would be able to essentially join teams that are in the playoff hunt. The Hawks are in the market for a point guard, and also picking within the range Brunson might go are the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. The Nets can use someone like Brunson and although the Sixers seem set with their guards, a number of their contracts will expire soon. Even if Markelle Fultz can get back on track, T.J. McConnell, Jerryd Bayless, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are potential free agents after next season, and Marco Bellinelli only had a one-year deal.
Brunson has been compared to the likes of Jameer Nelson, Derek Fisher, and D.J. Augustin. I personally see him as more of a Fred VanVleet type of player. VanVleet was a four-year success at Wichita State and although he was questioned for his lack of size and athleticism, he’s been making it work. He was a solid role player for the Toronto Raptors this past season. VanVleet got to be engaged in crunch-time minutes and was a knockdown shooter, as well as a capable playmaker. Although, compared to VanVleet, Brunson has accomplished more coming out of college and has performed at a higher level in all areas of the game.