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SAN ANTONIO -- Plenty has been made of Jalen Brunson's preternatural basketball abilities, and rightfully so. Villanova's junior point guard has averaged 19.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists this season, culminating in reaching the Final Four and in . He's the engine that makes the nation's most efficient offense go; Villanova's 127.2 points per 100 possessions is the second-most efficient offense since KenPom.com started measuring efficiency stats nearly two decades ago.
He's become exactly the player Villanova head coach Jay Wright predicted he'd become when he recruited him.
"He was as complete a player as I've ever seen in high school," Wright said. "I've never seen such a refined player in high school. The footwork he has in the post, he brought with him. He really did. His dad did a great job with him, his high school coach. We received a pretty finished product."
What's been given less attention than his refined basketball skills is the 21-year-old's leadership skills. Perhaps that's because he's not the world's most showboat-y leader. This isn't Baker Mayfield, rallying the troops and planting the flag. This is the guy who after a long day of lifting and practices tells his roommate he's heading back to the gym. He'll pick you up when you need it; he'll knock you down a peg if you need it. But more than anything, Brunson's talent as a leader is to say it without having to say it: Follow me.
"You'll see nights when we'll finish practice, he'll shower, we'll go up and eat, he'll be sitting in the locker room and then he'll be going back into the gym to get shots up," freshman guard Connor Gillespie said. "I roomed with him in the summer. In the summer, we'd get back from practice by 5. I'd get back, sit down and start my homework. He'll be like, 'All right, I'll be back.' I'm like, 'Where you going?' 'I'm going to the gym.' And I'm like, 'We just got back!' "
Talking about this Villanova team, which plays Kansas in the Final Four here Saturday, can be like every coach's favorite basketball clichés coming true. They buy in. They share the ball. They communicate, both on the floor and in the locker room. They develop as players and as young men in their time at Villanova. They value team over individual. They are five fingers working as one hand.
When Villanova won the national title two years ago, senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono was the embodiment of all things Villanova basketball. He was the smartest player on the floor. He set the tone for his team. He had a mind meld with his coach.
Brunson was a freshman on that team., and his parents fostered it: "My parents always told me never be a follower, always be a leader," Brunson said. "It's very difficult to do, to step out and be different and not follow the norm. If you want what's best for your team, you gotta be different." But as a freshman on a team with established veterans, Brunson had to step back and assume a lesser role. It was hard.
"When he came in as a freshman, the greatest challenge for him in his college career was learning how to take a back seat to Ryan Arcidiacono," Wright said. "Not ego-wise, just playing-wise. He was used to being the guy that everybody looked to, being the guy that talked to everybody on the floor, but we had Ryan. And I think it was a great challenge for him. One of the keys to us winning the championship was his ability to take on that role, because I know how difficult it was for him."
Brunson took on that role freshman year, and thanks to Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beater, Villanova won it all. He expanded his role his sophomore season as the team's starting point guard, but that was never "his" team: It was seniors Josh Hart and Jenkins' team. This year he's a captain, and make no mistake about it: This Villanova team is Jalen Brunson's team.
In the second-round game against Alabama in the second round of this tournament, Brunson picked up two quick fouls. That could have been seen as a huge concern against a talented Alabama team. But the way he picked up those fouls -- playing tenacious defense, trying to take a charge -- set the tone for his team to pick it up defensively, and they did. Even when he was on the bench, he was leading by example.
Over the past month, buzz started heating up nationally around Brunson as the national player of the year as Oklahoma freshman Trae Young started to trail off. Some players would hear that buzz, and they couldn't help but change their game to act like player who is in the running for national player of the year.
And perhaps the greatest testament to Brunson's leadership is this: That he reacted the opposite way.
"You gotta think a kid hears that," Wright said. "I would talk to him about it and say, 'Just keep playing your game.' But there were games toward the end of the year where I actually had to say to him at the end of the game, 'Stay aggressive; keep looking to score.' Where you could tell at the end of games we had leads and he was just trying to get everybody else involved. He was almost going out of his way to show that he was playing for his teammates.
"I remember specifically, a game at Xavier where he had a shot at the end, he didn't take it," Wright continued. "He gave it to Eric Paschall for a dunk. And he really should have shot it. But I showed the team afterwards, I said, 'Look at this kid. If anybody had a chance of player of the year, and you had that shot, to pass it up is really showing you how much he cares about his teammates.' He went out of his way to show his teammates he was not interested in individual accolades this year."
On Thursday, some sports writers were complaining that this Villanova team is not overflowing with dynamic personalities. This is not the most quotable team. There's no Kris Jenkins on this team, who after hitting that game-winning shot against North Carolina, stood on a press table and screamed, "I got ice in my veins!" This team is cool, calculated and professional. They are a coach's dream. And it all starts with Brunson.
"Some people say he has wires in his head -- if you take off his face, you'll see wires, because he's a robot," redshirt junior big man Paschall said. "He's a machine. His work ethic is crazy. This is when I knew Jalen was like a robot: It was earlier this year. We had a lift. We had a tough practice. We already shot. It was like 9 o'clock at night. I was tired. And he was like, 'OK, I'm going to go shoot again.' Seeing that inspires all of us."