For the better part of the last decade or decade and a half, you probably could have brought a Knicks fan to tears—if not outright rage—by broaching the subject of starting point guards.
The topic has been a longtime sore spot for those who bleed orange and blue, and rightfully so. The past five merry-go-round seasons have seen Jarrett Jack; Emmanuel Mudiay; Frank Ntilikina; Elfrid Payton; an oft-injured, turnstile version of Bronx native Kemba Walker; and Alec Burks—who isn’t even a point guard—hold down the starting role for the franchise. It’s a reality that left the club at a nightly disadvantage at arguably the game’s most important position.
It’s been quite a while—perhaps the fleeting Jeremy Lin run, or perhaps the 54-win campaign in 2012–13 when Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd operated as a starting tandem—since fans would have trusted the team’s starting floor general to take a jumper with the game hanging in the balance. And perhaps that’s what was so different about the team’s deflating 123–121 loss to the Raptors on Monday: Even though Jalen Brunson’s three at the buzzer ultimately misfired, the fact that he was entrusted to take it speaks to the paradigm shift that’s taken root in Manhattan.
At this point, with the Knicks 25–20, why wouldn’t he be trusted? He’s performed extremely well when the pressure is highest, shooting 52.4% (33-for-63) in clutch scenarios, including 5-for-10 from deep. And even after a relative off night in the Toronto defeat, Brunson—who averaged 11.9 points in his time as a Maverick and a personal-best 16.3 points a night last season—is now tossing in 31.6 points per contest since the turn of the new year. The guard’s managed to do it on ridiculous efficiency equivalent to what LeBron James has put up this month. (James had 48 in a win Monday night as he pushes closer to the all-time scoring record.) Brunson earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for his dominance the last few days, including a career-best 44-point showing against All-NBA defender Jrue Holiday and the Bucks.
Specifically, Brunson’s jump-shooting from range, nearly 40% from deep and 48% on long, midrange jumpers, has been even better than last season, when he saw a greater share of open looks due to his role alongside perennial MVP candidate Luka Dončić. Perhaps most impressive: Brunson’s scoring and efficiency numbers have gotten better by the month—even as he’s shouldered a greater usage rate every single month—despite being assisted far less than he ever has. Perhaps he just needed a slight nudge to enjoy a breakout of sorts.
Still: Potentially shooting above 50% from inside the arc for a fifth consecutive season to begin a career isn’t the easiest accomplishment when you’re maybe 6’1″ and lacking the athleticism to blow past taller defenders in the lane. But Brunson is a master at making use of advantageous angles to not only make plays inside the paint, but also to absorb contact and finish through it with his stout frame. One example of that strength: Up until Monday, he’d generated more old-school three-point plays this season (26) than he’d had shots blocked (23), a top-heavy ratio generally reserved for big, hulking forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
Almost instantly he rendered the questions about whether the Knicks overpaid him silly. He’s being paid $26 million a season, about average for a starting NBA point guard, with a shrinking salary each year. (Ironically, Fred VanVleet—whose heroics lifted the Raptors to victory—was mentioned as a free-agent possibility for the Knicks back in 2020, and many felt the 6’1″ guard would have been an overpay at the time, at $21 million per season. But he’s since justified his deal, making an All-Star team and narrowly missing the All-Defensive Team last season.)
While the Knicks are clearly getting their money’s worth and then some, Monday’s loss showcased one or two of the flaws Brunson has at times. While he gives consistent effort defensively—a must for anyone playing for coach Tom Thibodeau—at times he doesn’t have the length or the footspeed to stop his counterparts. (VanVleet played well and found himself guarded by 6’5″ wing Quentin Grimes in the late stages Monday.) Beyond that, though, there are times when Brunson, seeking to make something happen, forces the issue a bit too much on offense and resolves it by throwing up a shot in heavy traffic or losing the ball. Case in point: He had his shot blocked five times on Monday alone, a massive number considering Brunson had been stuffed only once every other game or so before that.
But it’d be an overreaction to harp on those shortcomings given the All-Star-caliber season he’s having as a lead option alongside Julius Randle. He is better than good at the line and had drilled 46 in a row from there. (Suddenly, he’s seeing some regression at the stripe.) Brunson’s footwork, particularly with his turnaround jumpers and his ability to stop on a dime, is immaculate at times. He generally doesn’t give the ball away, and at almost 3-to-1, is enjoying the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career, while logging more than six dimes per night.
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Brunson throws the majority of his passes—more than 56% of them—to Randle and RJ Barrett. And even while those two haven’t shot the ball well directly off Brunson’s passes to this point—they’re both under 40% from the season in such instances—there’s something to be said about the fact that both forwards are playing considerably better than last season while also possessing the ball less, both in total and on a per-touch basis. Their touches are more decisive and crisp. Both are getting rid of the ball about 10% more quickly than a season ago, according to league tracking data—something that’s always been a key in Randle’s game as it relates to the quality of his looks and his ability to safeguard the ball. That he appears more comfortable and is putting up efficiency numbers closer to his All-NBA season from 2020–21 isn’t a coincidence.
To some extent, that is what the Knicks had been missing for far too long: a guy who can get his own at a high level while also keeping the ball moving enough to where no one—not even the big-money names like Randle—feels the need to dribble the air out of the ball. If nothing else comes of this season, New York can take comfort in the fact that it not only didn’t overpay for Brunson; the club actually managed to get a bargain at a position it desperately needed to fill.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week
- I wrote a piece venting about how … not fun the Rockets are to watch sometimes. And how heavily that contrasts with a team like the Kings. (Full apologies to the hypertalented Alperen Şengün, who put together a 33-15-6 masterpiece in L.A. last night.)
- From Madison Williams: WNBA superstar Maya Moore announced Monday that she was retiring. She hangs it up as one of the most accomplished athletes ever: four WNBA titles, two Olympic gold medals, two national titles at UConn, a WNBA MVP award, a WNBA Finals MVP award and a three-time WNBA All-Star Game MVP. Yet her biggest win of all—perhaps her greatest legacy—may have come away from the court. In 2019, she took a sabbatical in her prime, at age 29, in hopes of finding something with greater purpose, and a year and a half later that social justice effort culminated in getting Jonathan Irons’s wrongful conviction overturned. She and Irons have since married, and the backstory of it all was captured in an ESPN 30 for 30.
- The Jazz have gotten more than their fair share of attention this season due to their hot, unexpected start and Lauri Markkanen’s unexpected All-Star candidacy. But if you aren’t familiar with Utah rookie Walker Kessler, do yourself a favor and get familiar quickly. And don’t be surprised if your friends from Minnesota—who saw the Timberwolves deal him away as part of the Rudy Gobert trade—don’t want to have conversations about him. I likely wouldn’t want to, either. The rookie big had 20 points and 21 rebounds in a one-point road victory over Minnesota on Sunday. (In case you’re curious, Gobert played just five minutes, after tweaking a groin injury he suffered Saturday.) Kessler is incredibly sound on both ends and has the look of someone who’s gonna be in the league the next 15 years, easily.
- Lastly, if you somehow missed what figures to be the dunk of the year, by Ja Morant, I’ve got you covered. I keep thinking about how I’d like to see Morant in the dunk contest, but then I remember: Part of what makes his jams so incredible is the fact that so many of them are right in people’s faces, like this one.
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