At his introductory press conference on Sept. 22, 2022, Jalen Brunson sat at a podium, decked out in a crisp number 11 New York Knick jersey, and said the following, “I’m not a savior in any way, shape, or form. I just want to be able to contribute to the team.”
It was his first statement to Knicks fans, and it was a lie. We did not know it then, but Brunson was selling himself short, a trait that is in lockstep with his humility, one of the traits that have made him the greatest free-agent signing in franchise history. But at the time, most Knicks fans, the mainstream media, and basketball fans, in general, agreed with him. He was a former backup and second-round pick, who showed flashes of playoff brilliance with the Dallas Mavericks in the 2022 playoffs, but also played himself off the floor against the Clippers the postseason before.
Then there is how he looked. The greatest Knicks point guard and player of all time, Walt “Clyde ‘’ Frazier, not only played the part, but also looked it. With his slender build, cool-as-ice mutton chops, and jazz-like game, you could feel his impact through the TV screen. Brunson is firmly tethered to the floor. He has no bounce. No tremor to his first step. Josh Hart, the Oscar to Brunson’s Felix Odd Couple (the duo has perfected their two-man routine since winning a championship together at Villanova), often jokes about Brunson’s oversized head. Many across the NBA landscape agreed Brunson doesn’t look the part of a superstar, much less a savior. Some derided the Knicks for overpaying the four-year, $104 million contract for another “non-star.”
But in the season and a half he has been with the team, he has single-handedly maximized the Knicks’ potential, turned them into a bonafide contender for the first time in 23 years and evolved into a savior for New York City and Knicks fans worldwide. He has also accomplished something else remarkable: He’s the best point guard in the NBA. ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins recently expressed this sentiment after Brunson was named a first-time All-Star before dropping 40 on the Pacers. Brunson’s January was historic. His 28.9 points, 7.7 assists, and 61.6% true shooting made him one of only seven players who ever reached that level of combined scoring, playmaking, and efficiency: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Luka Dončić, Trae Young, James Harden, and Damian Lillard. Last month, he tore up the league on floaters (59%) and three-pointers (39.7%) on the way to a Knicks 14-2 record. Among point guards, only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander attacks the rim more than Brunson, perhaps because SGA shoots a paltry 35% from three. At the same time, Brunson notches the fifth-most fouls made and-1s in the NBA, proving his rare five-level scoring ability.
His opponents will point to Gilgeous-Alexander’s gaudy statistics or Steph Curry’s championship rings. But as brilliant as SGA is, he has only a single first-round exit on his playoff resume, which occurred back in 2020. Curry has finally reached the end of his prime and has been outperformed by Brunson this season.
Brunson dragged a bunch of role players, an injured Julius Randle and ill-fitting pieces to the second round of the playoffs last postseason before losing to the eventual Finals-bound Miami Heat. The Heat are known for shutting down opposing stars, as they did to Trae Young in the 2022 playoffs. But Brunson gave the Knicks a chance against their toughest Eastern Conference opponent, averaging 31 points, 6.3 assists and 5.5 rebounds in a brutally close six-game series. The Heat tried multiple defenders, including All-Defense Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, on Brunson, but none could slow him down. He had his way with the entire team and every scheme thrown at him while averaging 50% shooting through the series.
After a breakout as a first-time starter last season, Brunson is averaging career highs across the board: 27.3 PPG, 6.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, 6.2 FTA and 41.3 3FG%. Tyrese Haliburton is also a contender for best point guard in the NBA with a league-leading 12 APG, but he, too, has zero playoff experience to speak of. Regular season stats only go so far. Randle and head coach Tom Thibodeau have been in New York for five and four years, respectively, making the playoffs only once with a first-round exit before Brunson arrived. In his first season with the Knicks (and first as “the guy”), he took them farther than they’d been in the playoffs in a decade. He also leads the NBA in offensive fouls drawn.
In just 48 games, Brunson has already achieved five incredible 40+ performances and 19 games scoring 30 points or more. Since Scottie Pippen’s legendary +272 in November 1996, no player has come close to matching that feat. Enter Jalen Brunson, who, in January, scorched the NBA with a remarkable +256 plus-minus, etching his name into the history books. When Brunson said he wanted to ‘contribute to the team,” he wasn’t lying. The Knicks haven’t enjoyed back-to-back top-10 offenses since the dawn of NBA advanced stats (1996-97), and now the superstar guard has them towards unprecedented territory: consecutive top-five finishes.
Unlike Gilgeous-Alexander and Curry, Brunson is not playing alongside a bunch of Lottery picks. The Thunder have three Lottery picks in the starting lineup (Josh Giddey sixth in 2021, Chet Holmgren second in 2022, and Jalen Williams twelfth in 2022 ). The Warriors do, too, (Klay Thompson was seventh in 2011, Andrew Wiggins was first in 2014, and Jonathon Kuminga was seventh in 2021). Brunson plays with only one Lottery pick in Julius Randle (seventh in 2014). Bruson currently makes his teammates better than any of those other guys, as four of Thibodeau’s nine-man rotation were second-round picks (Isaiah Hartenstein, Miles McBride, Jericho Sims, Mitchell Robinson), and all the others were late-first-round picks. Brunson’s impact upon joining the Knicks was immediate, while Gilgeous-Alexander (his biggest competition to the throne) took five years to finally earn a playoff-worthy record. It’s a lot easier to be good with a horde of Lottery picks around you and playing in the smallest market of the NBA.
It’s even more amazing that Bunson is doing this with unparalleled expectations for the Knicks. Sure, Gilgeous-Alexander is balling out in podunk Oklahoma City, where pressure is non-existent as their rebuild nears its end. Since James Dolan was handed the Knicks by his daddy on a silver platter, only Amare Stoudamire came to the Knicks as a free agent in an attempt to be “the man” amid immense pressure. He, too, failed. So when Brunson said he was not coming to the Knicks to be a savior, we believed him. A free agent hadn’t come to the Knicks with playoff success since Allan Houston in 1996. Brunson just wanted to play for people he trusted: godfather Leon Rose, pops Rick Brunson, and his family friend, Thibodeau. He wanted the reins of his own team to prove the haters wrong on a higher level. At the time, neither he nor we knew that he would become the savior the Knicks have searched for over 50 years.
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