Jalen Brunson isn’t a traditional NBA draft sleeper. He’s not an athletic freak toiling in obscurity in a smaller conference, or a square peg being pounded into a round hole by a college coach not using his skill set properly. The Villanova junior point guard is one of the front-runners for the Wooden Award, and he’s playing for a second national title in three seasons on Monday. Brunson is the driving force behind the Wildcats offense, averaging 19.2 points and 4.7 assists a game on 52.7 percent shooting. He doesn’t have the size and athleticism that has become the new standard for his position, but he could be the latest in a long line of players who have succeeded in the NBA without them.
Jalen is the son of Rick Brunson, a longtime NBA point guard who is now an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He plays like someone who grew up around the game. He rarely forces the issue or takes bad shots, and opposing defenses can’t speed him up. He knocks down 3s, drives the gaps, and finds open teammates, making the right decision in Villanova head coach Jay Wright’s read-and-react offense almost every time he touches the ball. His role has grown every season, from being the fifth starter as a freshman to leading man as a junior. The Wildcats have one of the best offenses in NCAA history because they surround Brunson with so much 3-point shooting that something is always open, and he’s always able to find the best shot.
There’s a reason he’s not higher on draft boards. Brunson is an older prospect (he’ll be 22 at the start of the 2018-19 season) who won’t stand out physically in the NBA. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-3 wingspan, Brunson has average size for a point guard at the next level, and he doesn’t have the burst or explosive ability to make up for it. Older NCAA point guards like him have slipped into the second round (Frank Mason III) or gone undrafted (Fred VanVleet, T.J. McConnell, Yogi Ferrell, and Quinn Cook) in recent years. However, the way those players have performed in the NBA suggests that teams should be valuing point guards with steady, no-nonsense play in college. While there are certainly guys who have busted out of the league who fit that profile, the potential reward of taking a player like that in the second round is high.
VanVleet is the best-case scenario. He was undrafted after a storied four-year career at Wichita State, and he barely played as a rookie with the Raptors. It didn’t seem like much would change this season, but he has been so good that not only has he forced his way into the rotation, he’s often closing games next to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan on the perimeter. Like Brunson, VanVleet is a hard-nosed player with elite ballhandling, shooting, and playmaking ability who is always in the right place at the right time on both sides of the ball. No matter his role in the lineup, whether he’s handling the ball or spotting up and attacking close-outs, he’s making his teammates better.
VanVleet’s importance can be seen in his advanced numbers. His traditional stats (8.8 points on 43.1 percent shooting and 3.2 assists a game) don’t jump off the page, but the Raptors’ net rating when he is on the floor (plus-13) is the highest of any of their rotation players, and their net rating when he is off the floor (plus-4.5) is the lowest. He is the common feature in their best lineups. Their highest-rated lineup (plus-24.6 in 101 minutes) among the ones that have played at least 50 minutes this season is when VanVleet plays with four starters (Lowry, DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas). Their second-highest-rated lineup (plus-20.2 in 299 minutes) is an all-bench unit with VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl.
One of the big concerns for VanVleet was how he would hold up defensively given his 6-foot frame, but that’s actually been a strength so far in his NBA career. The combination of basketball IQ and toughness can take a player far. VanVleet is deceptively strong and he positions himself well, fighting over screens, cutting off penetration, and always challenging shots. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he’s in the 67th percentile of players league-wide when defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season. It remains to be seen how he will fare in playoff situations against elite teams that involve him in screens with bigger and faster players, but he’s already shown he can be a positive on defense in the regular season.
A polished NCAA point guard can improve a bad NBA team, too. Mason, who won the Wooden Award as a senior at Kansas, has been one of the few bright spots in Sacramento as a rookie. While he’s averaging only 8.1 points on 38.4 percent shooting and 2.9 assists a game, the Kings go from an average NBA team when he’s on the floor (net rating of minus-1.5 in 959 minutes) to one of the worst teams in the league when he’s off (net rating of minus-10.4 in 2,800 minutes). There’s real value in a ball handler who can threaten a defense from the 3-point line and off the dribble and who can run a pick-and-roll, control tempo, and find the open man.
Point guards with VanVleet and Mason’s pedigree can find ways to make themselves useful in the NBA. Ferrell, at 6-foot and 180 pounds, plays off the ball in Dallas next to Dennis Smith Jr. and J.J. Barea, yet his ability to knock down shots, get into the lane, and be a pest on defense has made him a valuable rotation player. Cook bounced around the league for a few years, but he’s performed well this season while holding down the fort for an injury-ravaged Golden State team. McConnell combines a lack of elite size and speed with an inconsistent 3-point shot (career 33 percent shooter on only 0.9 attempts a game), and he’s still become a folk hero in Philadelphia as a feisty backup.
The value of a backup point guard can also be seen in their absence. Memphis passed on McConnell and Cook with the no. 44 overall pick in the 2015 draft to take Andrew Harrison, an inexperienced guard who went pro after two inconsistent seasons at Kentucky. When Mike Conley went down with a season-ending foot injury in November, the Grizzlies had no one on their roster who could handle the responsibility of running an NBA offense and lost 17 of their next 19 games. Harrison, who’s still only 23, may end up developing into an NBA-caliber player, but if his ceiling isn’t particularly high, why not use a second-round pick on an older point guard who can step in right away and help a team?
Brunson, currently the no. 38 ranked prospect on ESPN’s Top 100, fits that description. His statistics this season are in line with his predecessors in their final season of college:
How Jalen Brunson Compares to Other Late-Round/Undrafted Point Guard Prospects
To be sure, not everything he does in the NCAA is likely to translate to the next level. Brunson is in the 98th percentile of post scorers nationwide, and Villanova often inverts its offense to feature him inside against smaller point guards. He can look like Mark Jackson, a standout in the 1990s before he became a lightning rod as a coach and analyst, when he gets them on his back and uses angles to create shots in traffic. In Villanova’s 95-79 romp over Kansas in their Final Four game on Saturday, the Jayhawks doubled Brunson almost every time he posted up, and he picked them apart.
Brunson is so skilled, though, that it won’t be hard to find other roles for him. He doesn’t have an elite first step, but he’s a great shooter (career 39.6 percent shooter from 3 on 3.9 attempts a game and 82 percent from the free throw line on 3.5 attempts) with a quick release who doesn’t need much space to score. He’s in the 96th percentile of scorers in the pick-and-roll this season and in the 97th percentile when coming off screens. Maybe his most intriguing stats (courtesy of hoop-math.com) are his field goal percentages at the rim (71.3 percent) and on 2-point jumpers (51.5 percent). While his life is made easier by the pristine floor spacing at Villanova, he also has uncommon touch and finishing ability for a player with his physical tools.
Brunson dominated his matchup with fellow All-American PG Devonte’ Graham on Saturday. Brunson was an extension of Wright on the court, setting the tone early by ruthlessly attacking Kansas sophomore center Udoka Azubuike in the pick-and-roll and creating open 3s for himself and his teammates. The great thing about Brunson, and what should really help his transition in the NBA, is the way he slides between setting others up and spotting up off of them. He finished with 18 points and six assists on 7-of-14 shooting, but he was just as valuable when he was playing off junior Phil Booth (six assists) and sophomore Donte DiVincenzo (three assists).
The key to beating Michigan’s stifling defense on Monday will be Brunson’s ability to command defensive attention and create ball movement that leads to open shots. If he can lead Villanova to another national title, he will top off one of the greatest careers in NCAA history. The feel for the game to pull that off without elite athletic ability will translate to the next level. Brunson has one of the highest floors of anyone in this year’s draft, and his ceiling might not be that low, either. Fred VanVleet went from college star to undrafted free agent to playoff X factor in two years. Jalen Brunson could be on the same path. He won’t be a draft sleeper much longer.