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Knicks’ Jalen Brunson isn’t just fighting for an All-Star spot but an All-NBA nod

Adrian Griffin saw it coming. The Milwaukee Bucks head coach received years of free previews.

Signs of a kid who would one day divide his team came more than a decade ago when Griffin worked alongside Rick Brunson as an assistant with the Chicago Bulls under head coach Tom Thibodeau . That’s when Griffin noticed Brunson’s son Jalen’s stuff.

“(Rick) and Jalen would be there, and he coached Jalen hard, man,” Griffin said. “I watched it all the time with Jalen, and Jalen was getting better. And I looked at my kids, I said, ‘Man, we gotta get to work, man.’ I said, “We have to go to the gym.” »

Griffin knows a thing or two about turning DNA into basketball talent. He played nine years in the NBA. Three of his children played Division I hoops. And yet, few people are capable of doing to a team what Brunson did to Griffin’s Bucks this season.

The All-Star prospect had 38 points in the New York Knicks’ 129-122 victory on Christmas Day. It was the first time Brunson’s team beat the Bucks in four tries this season. And yet the first three losses weren’t due to Brunson, who had 45 points the first time the two teams met, 24 the next, 36 on Saturday and 38 again on Monday.

The Bucks thrive in coverage, keeping their center, Brook Lopez, close to the hoop, which leaves the midrange vulnerable. Brunson feasts from there, soaring into floaters and spinning like a CD until he creates a friendly angle at 12 to 15 feet.

He destroys Milwaukee’s weaker perimeter defenders. Malik Beasley often starts on him, but the Bucks will try any of their guys on the fiery point guard, hoping one of them annoys him just enough. Heck, Milwaukee placed veteran wing Khris Middleton on Brunson for part of Monday’s game. Yet in the fourth quarter, Brunson runs through screens to force lesser defenders, such as Damian Lillard, to get close to him and then attack.

The first three times the Knicks and Bucks played this season, Milwaukee drained so many 3s that New York couldn’t keep up. But on Monday, Brunson’s 38 was enough for a victory.

This is a game to watch in case the Bucks and Knicks meet in the playoffs. How can a team without a long physical presence on the perimeter, the type that normally gives Brunson the most problems, stifle a relentless scorer?

Yet Brunson’s bravado grew bigger than four bombs against the Bucks, even though the victory came in a nationally televised game. Another breakthrough of around thirty points is closer to his norm than his exception. The Knicks (17-12) are 29 games into the season and sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, thanks in large part to Brunson, who for the sixth time in his six-year NBA career has a season in career.

Enough time has passed in 2023-24 — not just against the Bucks but against anyone — to discuss the accolades. One season after missing out on All-Star honors, could Brunson finally get there in 2024?

He averages 26.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists. The efficiency numbers make math geeks pale: 49% on 2-pointers and 46% on 3-pointers… and that represents 6.4 long-range attempts per game.

As strong as the numbers were at the end of All-Star voting last season, they’re even better now.

“Sometimes we don’t see the best players in this league because they don’t have the same opportunities,” Lillard said. “It’s not always the case, but with him, I think you see that. They play through him. They give him every opportunity and he takes full advantage of it.

Lillard, a seven-time All-Star, knows what that’s supposed to look like.

So did Griffin, a longtime player, coach and observer of Brunson. And he’s not the only one who says he’s witnessed inevitable greatness from a former second-round pick.

“Spending every day with him, you just start to understand what his mindset is,” Knicks teammate Donte DiVincenzo said.

Brunson and DiVincenzo were teammates at Villanova and are now back together in New York.

“He’s one of the most mentally strong players I know, but also one of the smartest players I know,” DiVincenzo continued. “He knows he’s not the most athletic. He knows he’s not the longest. But what he does know is how to run the game, how to get his buckets, how to get other people involved and how to control everything.

And yet a statement from one of Brunson’s staunchest supporters might be understating him.

For years, conversations about the so-called 6-foot-2 point guard pinned him as a game manager, as if he were the NBA’s version of Chad Pennington under center. But Brunson, while retaining all those exhilarating attributes, is now at another level, which should be enough to carry him to Indianapolis, even if the competition is tough.

Twelve players make up each All-Star team, consisting of four to six guards and six to eight front-court players. What hurts Brunson is that he will only be eligible at guard while power forwards, like Jimmy Butler, are typically eligible for both positions. If a voter were to move someone like Butler or Jaylen Brown to guard, that would mean one less spot for Brunson.

But a versatile player shouldn’t cross him off the list, even though today’s NBA is full of stat packers.

Both Tyres, Maxey and Haliburton, are favorites for the All-Stars, provided they stay healthy and maintain this level of play. Donovan Mitchell carries the injured Cleveland Cavaliers, who remain competitive even with half a team in good health. Lillard has returned to dominant numbers after a slow start with his new team. The Boston Celtics, who have the best record in the conference, could end up with more than one All-Star because that’s often how it works. Jayson Tatum is a guarantee at forward, but what if the coaches, who vote on reserves, want to include a second or third Celtics player? Could Brown succeed as a guard or could Derrick White, who draws interest for his defense, connectivity and efficiency, make it happen?

In an age of inflated statistics, more and more candidates are emerging.

Trae Young leads all East guards in scoring, although his Atlanta Hawks are currently outside the Play-In tournament picture. Coaches tend to favor players from winning teams. Butler could qualify as a guard, even though he has already missed seven games.

Someone might also catch fire over the next month, inserting themselves into the debate. Maybe it’s Mikal Bridges, Dejounte Murray or Coby White, who have sneakily pushed the Chicago Bulls up the standings since Zach LaVine was injured.

Still, right now, it’s hard to think about Eastern Conference All-Stars without including Brunson.

Of the 10 candidates mentioned in this story, Brunson ranks fourth in rating. He is third and fourth in the top two efficiency metrics, field goal percentage and true shooting, respectively. He is fifth in assists, second in turnover rate and first in 3-point percentage. He didn’t miss a game – and he did it on a winning team.

He also benefits from a spin that helped Lillard years ago.

In 2017, Lillard somehow missed the All-Star team, even though he was already a household name, putting up his exemplary numbers on a respectable team. A wave of support followed his snobbery. For the following season, Lillard wasn’t just an All-Star; he was the one who was robbed. No conversation with Lillard began without an apoplectic warning.

How the hell did this guy not make the All-Star team?

Aside from 2022, when he was injured, Lillard hasn’t missed one since. Makeup calls exist — and Brunson, the go-to snub of 2023, could show it again. Certainly, coaches won’t forget to leave out a player whose reputation over the past year has only improved, with his fans asking the same question they once asked about Lillard:

How the hell did this guy not make the All-Star team?

At this rate, Brunson isn’t just an All-Star contender. He’s also on the fringes of the All-NBA conversation — although not everyone so close to Brunson anticipated this level of dominance.

“I always knew he did the work to be successful,” said Josh Hart, another of Brunson’s teammates at Villanova who joined him with the Knicks. “But even I didn’t know how that would translate NBA style.”

It turns out these slippery, signature moves work against top-notch competition, especially against Milwaukee’s defense.

“When did I know (Brunson was so good)?” » Hart said. “Probably three years ago when he started doing it. But I wasn’t surprised. I think a lot of people were surprised. I wasn’t surprised. I knew he had done the job.

(Photo by Jalen Brunson: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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