While Jalen Brunson has become the most reliable basketball player in New York, that wasn’t always the case. Less than a year ago, there were people around the league who believed that the Knicks had overpaid for the young floor general and questioned just how good Brunson could be. It’s not like pundits and analysts thought that he was bad, but given his short stature, defensive limitations, and lack of experience as the go-to guy, many thought that his ceiling and potential were somewhat limited. And they weren’t necessarily crazy to think that.
The New Brunswick, NJ, native had always shown flashes of being an incredibly efficient sidekick, capable of taking over games from time to time but he was never looked at as a guy that could be the number one option on a very good team. Averaging 11.9PPG, 3.7APG, and 3RPG over his first four seasons, Dallas liked what he offered next to their star, Luka Doncic. But it became increasingly evident through the numerous rumors, that New York believed that he was capable of way more.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long at all for Brunson to prove the doubters wrong and the Knicks right. In his first 20 games, the Knicks’ prized offseason acquisition got off to an incredibly solid start, averaging 21.8PPG, and 6.7APG on an efficient 48.7% from the field. And in a matter of weeks, fans fell in love with Brunson as they were treated to the best point guard play they had seen in decades. Brunson was a team player that could orchestrate a flawed offense into looking competent, while also getting his own in the flow of the offense. And when the offense inevitably stalled, Brunson seemed to always get a much-needed bucket with his wide array of moves, fakes, pivots, floaters, fadeaways, and layups.
Early on, fans had loved what Brunson had done but they also had reason to believe that his play and numbers would continue to improve, and rightfully so. Brunson, through 20 games, had been a clear upgrade over the likes of Elfrid Payton and Alec Burks but he had struggled from three, shooting just 32.2%, and he had missed some crucial late-game free throws. In hindsight, it was rather nitpicky to focus on that, but Brunson, as he’d end up doing all season long, stepped up to the challenge and went beyond what was expected in the following months.
In his next 30 games, Brunson, who was a major factor in the Knicks turning their season around, averaged 24.1PPG and 5.9APG on 46.7% from the field, and 45.7% from three. Brunson was making a very convincing case to make his first All-Star game and was putting the entire league on notice while doing so. Unfortunately, Brunson ended up missing out on the All-Star bid, but luckily for the Knicks and their fans, he ended up taking it out on the rest of the league. In the 18 games to close out the regular season, Brunson went on to average 26.3PPG and 6.1APG on 53.8% from the field and 44.3% from three. When all was said and done, Brunson, along with Julius Randle, had led the Knicks to an incredibly successful 47-35 season that landed them the fifth seed and a first-round matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And for multiple reasons, this was an incredibly important playoff series for Brunson and the Knicks. New York would be facing the team that had landed Donovan Mitchell, who was very closely linked to the Knicks, and losing to them would lead to pure pandemonium with fans and analysts deeming the season a failure. There was also the fact that Brunson would be playing in his first postseason series as a Knick and that guys like Randle, who was coming off a badly sprained ankle, and Barrett also had a lot on the line as they had to prove that they could perform in the playoffs.
Thankfully, Brunson elevated his game to yet another level. In the five-game series, the Knicks’ point guard put on a masterful performance en route to averaging 24PPG, and 4.8APG on 43.7% shooting. And during the hard-fought series, the Cavaliers threw multiple looks and multiple defenders at him but time and time again, the crafty point guard picked apart their defense with expertise.
And Brunson was not finished. Just when we thought we’d seen it all, Brunson took us all by surprise yet again. Miami very smartly ended up making a concerted effort to crowd the paint in an attempt to slow Brunson down and force the Knicks to make outside shots. And when the Knicks’ shooting let them down, it means Brunson would be playing with very little (sometimes no) space at all. Yet somehow, the undersized guard continued to find ways to put the ball in the basket. In a narrow Game 1 loss, Brunson scored 27 points and dished out seven assists. He then came back in Game 2 and poured in 30 points in a pseudo-must-win game despite playing on a bum ankle. Brunson then struggled like the rest of the team in Game 3, but then came back to score 32 points in an eight-point Game 4 loss. Facing elimination, Brunson put on a memorable show, playing all 48 minutes in the Game 5 win and scoring 38 points, while grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out seven assists. Just days later, still with a hurt ankle, Brunson gutted out an astonishingly memorable 41-point performance and almost single-handedly kept the season alive in what will go down as one of the more memorable performances by a Knick in recent history.
The season did end on a sour note for both the Knicks, and Brunson, that much is undeniable. The former saw its surprisingly strong overachieving season come to an end with many of its players failing to show up in the biggest game of the season and the latter’s late game turnover cost the Knicks a chance to take Game 6 and force a Game 7 where anything could’ve happened. But there is no doubt that Brunson, who proved to be even better than anything Knicks fans could have hoped for, is a franchise point guard the team can be comfortable and confident building around for years to come. In less than a year, he has gone from an overpaid unproven commodity to an underpaid All-Star caliber playoff killer, beloved by teammates and fans alike. There are certainly questions about potential offseason roster moves and who may be shipped out, but Brunson’s staying seems like a given at this point, and we should all be grateful for that.