Once a borderline afterthought, Jalen Bunson has started out strong and created a new norm for the Knicks.
While a five-game sample isn’t enough to make any strong proclamations about the New York Knicks, the one thing fans could be thankful for is the arrival of Jalen Brunson and – finally – the arrival of consistent point guard play. After signing Brunson to a four-year contract worth $104 million, Brunson was largely forgotten about as New York pursued Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Once things were sorted, the Brunson deal was still viewed as a good one, but for a team that largely felt in the middle of the pack.
But as the season tipped off, Brunson quickly established himself as the jewel of the offseason, putting up 15 points, six rebounds, and nine assists in the season opener against the Memphis Grizzlies. Following New York’s Sunday night tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brunson has season averages of 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 7.2 assists, and more importantly, has offered New York a steady hand as the lead guard, his presence creating the start of an offensive hierarchy.
Despite slow starts from both RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier, the Knicks rank 12th in the league in offensive efficiency, largely because of a strong bench unit and Brunson’s ability to keep the starting five afloat, largely thanks to his ability to create open looks for corner shooters and navigate his own offense. As Barrett reverts back to form and the likes of Fournier, Immanuel Quickley, and a returning Quentin Grimes balance around him, Brunson will be an effective all-around guard.
And speaking of shooting, Brunson himself is keeping New York active from the outside. Prior to a poor outing versus Cleveland, he was shooting 38 percent on 4.4 attempts per game. He still prefers to attack and drive over shooting threes, but maintaining success from the outside adds levity to his driving game and that’s the element the Knicks ultimately signed him for.
The Brunson-Randle Relationship has worked out well so far
Of the several concerns entering the season, one was how Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle would co-exist. For the last three seasons, Randle was the judge, jury, and executioner for New York’s offense. Year two resulted in Randle winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award, an All-Star nod, and becoming the first forward since Larry Bird to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and shoot 40% from the outside. However, that one year was sandwiched with a bad 2018-19 season and an even worse 2021-22 season. How would Randle deal with a stable point guard at the helm?
The answer? So far, so good. Brunson has been able to properly balance both sides and make sure Randle continues to see a fair share of offensive touches. Meanwhile, Randle has at least tried to modify his game. His numbers have been down – 19.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists – and the 2019-20 shooting continues to look like a mirage, but he’s been able to find successful moments with Brunson at the helm. There have been blemishes – see the Milwaukee game for the best look at Randle reverting back to his own ways – but it looks manageable for the time being.
The two areas where we see the Brunson/Randle pairing work? The start of offensive plays and the “force” of more pick-and-roll. The first play is simple, Brunson brings the ball up, and Randle comes off the screen for an easy look from the outside. That look is rare compared to previous years where Randle would demand the ball at the top of the key and labor with it, attempting to jap step and attack opponents off the dribble. Is this the best shot with Randle shooting under 30% from the outside? Not really, but’s a different look.
The second is Randle rolling to the basket. Again, rare in the previous three seasons, but with a steady point guard in Brunson, it’s a bit more common. Randle has added, to his credit, this push-like floater into his game, using it when he can’t get to the basket. It’s a work in progress, but Randle has made several adjustments with Brunson and that has allowed the Knicks to remain in the upper tier of the league in offensive efficiency despite slow starts from several players.
New York must assist Brunson on the defensive end
If there’s one thing Brunson needs to work on is the defense, and truly, that’s the team’s fault over Brunson. Never a good defender, Brunson does his best to hold on against the opponent’s weakest defender. The issue is that Brunson plays a ton of his minutes alongside Evan Fournier, who looks like an even worse defender than in previous seasons. Brunson and Fournier, as a defensive unit, just cannot go on much longer.
Quentin Grimes feels like the ideal candidate for the starting shooting guard role and many believed he was set to earn that job after being held out of the Mitchell trade talks, but an injured foot has delayed his season. Until then? The best backcourt for New York is Brunson and Immanuel Quickley, as it offers multiple ball-handlers and shooters, and Quickley offers much more defensive validity than Fournier.
Ultimately, I envision the Knicks switching to a lineup of Brunson, Grimes, Barrett, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson. Using Robinson as a last resort defender who can distort shots at the rim, both Grimes and Barrett shifting amongst various wing players and Randle having the feet and dexterity to handle larger bodies within 15-to-20 feet should allow Brunson to be hidden on defense, which in turn should allow for both better defense from the first unit, as well as a better rotation structure for head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Jalen Brunson has started off well for the New York Knicks, thanks to a buy-in that he’s the team’s franchise player. As Barrett and Fournier struggled, Brunson has kept New York’s offense afloat and even served as a positive influence for Julius Randle. In return, New York has to help cover him on defense, and players like Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes, even Cameron Reddish in spurts, could cover him early in the season.
Regardless, the Knicks finally have a point guard, he has been a solid success so far and there’s room for him and this starting lineup to grow. So far, so good.