Jalen Brunson is an ascending star — one who has room to grow and could lead the Knicks to true greatness.
The New York Knicks have done all the right things to make Jalen Brunson feel like a star.
Team president Leon Rose was sold on Brunson well before Brunson was a Knick. The worst-kept secret during the summer of 2022 was that the Knicks were going to throw Brunson a bag as soon as the Dallas Mavericks’ season ended. Once he became the Knicks’ fourth $100 million man – not to mention the first player to receive a $100 million contract without making an All-Star team – Brunson paid the front office’s faith in him back 100-fold.
To say Brunson was robbed of the Most Improved Player award feels like a hot take until you realize the feat he accomplished. Brunson has helped make the Knicks cool again and now has them on the cusp of becoming a perennial contender. As the methodology of star accumulation goes into the NBA, the best way to land a star is to already have one or two on the roster.
He proved to be a star last season, but as good as he was, the Knicks need that same level of production, and more if they want to extend their season even longer than they did last year.
Brunson’s brilliant 2022-23 campaign has set the stage for a new era of Knicks basketball. Not since Carmelo Anthony donned orange and blue threads have the Knicks had expectations going into the year. Brunson continues to climb the list of top players in the league. CBS Sports has him as the 27th-best in the league, and one could argue he should crack the top 25.
Unlike the 2021-22 season — where there was more doubt in Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and company being legit — even the staunchest of critics are now buying into the Knicks’ staying power. Bobby Marks has the Knicks winning the East. Bill Simmons is guaranteeing that one of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokunmpo or Donovan Mitchell will be a Knick by next year. Even Jorge Sedano has had good things to say.
No, this is not a bad Black Mirror episode. The Knicks have patiently rebuilt following the disasters of regimes past and are in a great position to be consistently good. At the center of it all is Jalen Brunson. His path to maintaining his stardom is not as difficult as it may seem.
The first and most important step is for Brunson to sustain the level of production he had last season. There is an old adage in boxing and mixed martial arts that you are not a true champion until you defend your belt. The same applies to stars in the NBA–you are not a star player until you prove you can produce at a high level for longer than one season.
Brunson can look at his Randle as an example. If you put Randle’s recent resumé in front of anyone without his name attached, you would think it is a star player’s resume. In the last three years, Randle has made two All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams…yet is viewed as an overachiever, not a star. Barrett has dealt with similar skepticism, all because both had less than stellar follow-up seasons following the 2020-21 turnaround season.
What exactly does a leap look like for a player who averaged career-highs in points per game (24.0), assists per game (6.2) and three-point percentage (41.6%)? Mainly maintaining the status quo, but also incremental increases in production in those first two categories. If Brunson can churn out another season of 25 points, and further bump his facilitating, the Knicks will once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Randle and Barrett were unable to accomplish this. Both shot above 40% from beyond the arc in 2020-21, before crashing down to reality the season afterward. The difference is Brunson’s shooting numbers suggest his 41% has more credibility than the other two Lucky Lefties. Prior, and since, that career-high shooting from beyond the arc, Randle and Barrett were shooting in the low 30s. Brunson on the other hand has shown steady progress in that area since entering the league.
The good news for Brunson is this Knicks team is built significantly better than the 2021-22 team that essentially ran back a core comprised of Elfrid Payton, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks. In addition to the overall talent being better, a good chunk of the team has been together for at least three seasons. Brunson also has former Villanova teammate Josh Hart to lean on.
With the heightened chemistry plus the addition of his former college teammate and roommate, Donte DiVincenzo, Brunson is in a good place to build on last season’s leap. Assuming DiVencenzo can replicate the 39.7% from three he shot in Golden State, New York has even more shooting than they had last season, keeping the floor clear to operate.
Jalen Brunson proved in the second-round series against the Miami Heat that he can box in a phone booth if necessary to get a bucket. He was the only Knick scorer who seemed to be able to find their shot, and the team’s reliance on Brunson will only increase–if he can handle it.
Make Others Around Better
The mark of a truly great player is elevating the game of others. Last season Brunson was able to do this for Julius Randle. By simply taking over the facilitating duties, Brunson freed Randle up to do what he does best–bully opponents. The end result was a second All-Star and All-NBA selection for Randle, as he averaged even more points than he did in 2020-21.
To a much lesser extent, you saw similar gains in Hart’s game once he arrived. This season Brunson will look to do the same for the group of talented young players. In the playoffs, Barrett started to understand the benefit of sharing the floor with Brunson, driving relentlessly all over the Cavaliers’ front line. Mitchell Robinson claims to have a bigger offensive bag than we think.
Brunson is the guy to get the best out of all these guys. Barrett is too much of a grinder to not figure it out. The same goes for Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes, both of whom complement Brunson nicely in the backcourt.
That is where Robinson comes into focus. It is not that Robinson is any less of a worker than the others, it is more so the fact he relies on playmakers to find him. Robinson was a stud in every aspect except offense. Last season was statistically the worst Robinson has shot since 2020-21, a season that was cut short due to injury.
Given Brunson will have the ball in his hands more than anyone else, it is up to him to keep his center happy. This is not to say Robinson should be a focal point of the offense. But Robinson could stand to average at least 5.0 attempts per game. Robinson being a rim-runner makes it easy. A simple lift could be Brunson running more pick-and-rolls in which Robinson gets more opportunities.
The first-round series against the Cavaliers proved how vital Robinson was to the operation. If Brunson is able to keep him happy, Robinson could look closer to the guy who set the NBA record for field goal percentage in a single season.
Find a Niche on Defense
A good portion of this article, or all, has focused on all the great things about Jalen Brunson. Think of this as the underbelly. Brunson is not perfect, he has his blemishes, and those blemishes exist on the defensive side of the floor
One of the few things the Cavaliers did right against the Knicks was target Brunson on ball screens, doing so 22 times in the first two games alone. Brunson will be at a size disadvantage more times than not, so it makes perfect sense teams would pick on him.
In the regular season, this would not necessarily be exploited as much. And it is understandable that Brunson out of anyone takes on the least imposing threat on defense, given the workload he carries on offense. In the playoffs, however, instances like what the Cavs did will happen.
There are smaller guards than Brunson — namely Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul — that have found a way to provide something on defense. For Lowry, it’s his uncanny, infuriating ability to draw charges. For CP3, it’s his pickpocketing prowess.
It is a lot to ask from Brunson to become a high-level defender. He is smart enough to find a niche, one that could be relied upon when the games start to matter. The Knicks have to start thinking in the frame of mind of do-or-die playoff games, not just the regular season.
That is the new frame of mind Jalen Brunson and the Knicks must play with. It is a new day in NYC, and the rising star at point guard must continue to lead the way.