If we're redoing the 2018 NBA Draft, Jalen Brunson would certainly be selected in the first round, if not the lottery. A two-time NCAA champion and former Player of the Year winner in college, Brunson fell into the lap of the Dallas Mavericks when they swooped him up in the second round with the 33rd overall pick. His fall on the draft boards probably had something to do with him being a four-year college player, which teams have undervalued in the past decade as one-and-done players have become the new normal.
However, Brunson being overlooked by the other 29 teams in the league has been Dallas' gain. That has been true especially this season as the former Villanova product continues to prove with each passing game that he's likely capable of more outside of just being a backup guard.
After the Mavs' latest win over the Orlando Magic Monday night, in which Brunson had 24 points off the bench, head coach Rick Carlisle spoke of Brunson's impressive progression over his young career.
"The thing about Brunson is he's really come a long way," Carlisle said. "It didn't just happen for him. He had to make a lot of adjustments. He's worked to change his body, his game and to adapt to the NBA 3-point line. Now he's an effective scorer at all three levels, and he was very much a mid-range player when he came. He's learned a lot about defense, and the work that he's done with the strength, body development and quickness has helped make him a very solid defender."
To say Brunson has developed into an effective scorer at all three levels is really a massive understatement, because what he's doing this season is actually ridiculous. Here's where Brunson ranks among other guards in the league on offense, per Cleaning the Glass:
|Location||Field-goal percentage||Percentile rank|
Around the rim
Brunson is also averaging near 50/40/90 splits, as he's shooting 54 percent from the field, 42 percent from deep and 85 percent from the line. When you watch this 6-foot-1, undersized guard play, his basketball IQ is on full display. He's always looking down the court to make the best play, especially in transition:
His efficiency around the rim can be attributed to how he uses his stocky build to absorb contact, which allows him to finish at a high clip. His underrated handle also tends to catch defenders off guard, which opens up a path to the rim for a basket:
... or the option to drive and kick it out to a teammate for a jumper:
The bonus about his play this season for Dallas is that while he's been an effective all-around player when he's out there by himself running the show, the Mavericks are even better when he's on the floor with Luka Doncic.
|On/off court||Offensive rating||Defensive rating||Net rating|
Brunson on/Doncic on
Brunson on/Doncic off
That 112.5 offensive rating with Doncic and Brunson on the floor together is just 0.5 lower than what the Mavs average this season, while the defense gives up 6.5 points fewer when those two are on the floor together. Since Brunson can play with or without the ball well, his fit next to Doncic has been nearly perfect. His efficient 3-point shooting only elevates them when they're on the floor together, as Doncic can fling one of his dazzling passes to Brunson on the arc with confidence knowing that he's going to knock it down over 40 percent of the time.
"Obviously Luka is going to have the ball a lot, so [I think of] how am I going to be effective when I don't have the ball, and how am I going to make plays on both sides of the floor," Brunson said during Monday's postgame press conference. "That's all I worry about, what to do to make plays and what to do on the defensive end to make plays. I worry about the little things, because I know everything else is going to flow."
But as Carlisle said, Brunson's growth and development wasn't something that just happened when he stepped into the league. Even from the third-year guard's perspective, he recognizes he had to change his mindset after joining an organization where he wasn't going to be the star.
"It's not easy going from one of the go-to guys on the team [in college] to not knowing if you're going to play [in the NBA]," Brunson said. "My dad helped me with my mindset, but my approach stays the same. My role may have changed, but my job is to go in there and change the game somehow and make plays for myself and others."
Give credit to Brunson, because there are some young players who enter the league and struggle with the possibility that they're going to have to change how they play. Brunson adapted to the change in his role and has been excelling.
However, in the moments where he has been given the reigns a bit, he's proven capable of much more than what his current role is in Dallas. In the six games he's started this season, he's averaging 16.7 points, 4.2 assists and three rebounds to go along with 59 percent shooting from the field and 55 percent from long range. He's completely taken over games in the fourth quarter for Dallas on a number of occasions, and has been put in lineups specifically for his defense.
He's thriving in his role as a backup guard to Doncic, but if he were on a worse team -- like the Orlando team Dallas just beat -- he'd probably be starting. Other teams looking for a backup guard have also probably taken notice of how well he's played this season. That's why next year may be tricky for Dallas. Brunson will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2021-22 season, and if he continues to progress, he'll undoubtedly have several suitors across the league wanting to sign him.
The issue isn't about if Dallas can afford him; the Mavericks will have Brunson's Bird rights, which will allow them to go over the salary cap if necessary to retain him. The problem becomes how much is Dallas willing to spend on the roster as a whole, which could result in it becoming a luxury-tax team.
As of right now, the Mavericks are projected to have roughly $53 million in cap space the year Brunson becomes a free agent, assuming they pick up the team option on rookie Josh Green, Trey Burke opts in to his player option and Max Kleber's $9 million is guaranteed.
One looming issue is that Doncic will be eligible for a rookie max extension this offseason, which could be worth over $201.5 million over five years if he makes All-NBA again this year. Suddenly, that $53 million in cap space shrinks to about $13 million leftover for Dallas to fill out the rest of its roster, as only six players will be under contract in 2022. That's also not factoring in if the Mavericks decide to re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr., who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and has also been thriving in his bench role.
The point is, Dallas' roster is going to be expensive after this season because of Doncic's looming extension. Also, Kristaps Porzingis is still owed $101.4 million over three years, if he opts into his player option in 2023-24. The Mavericks would probably love to keep Brunson around, and Mark Cuban has professed his fondness of the talented guard on Twitter. But with Dallas still searching for a third star, it becomes about how the Mavs want to use their money.
Is Dallas, a team that notoriously likes to keep the powder dry for future moves, willing to go over the salary cap to chase a third star and keep Brunson? Or, does Brunson become the centerpiece for a trade to bring in that third star. He's owed just $1.8 million next season, so he has one of the best contracts in the league at such a low value. Dallas shouldn't trade Brunson for anything less than an All-Star-caliber player, because of what he provides for this team. Yet if a star becomes available via trade, Brunson would surely be the focal point of the deal as the most enticing young player on this roster outside of Doncic. These aren't urgent matters, and a lot can change between now and the 2022 offseason, but these are all questions on the horizon for Dallas.
Brunson has been having a stellar season, and is one of the main reasons Dallas has been able to get back on track and in the playoff hunt. But he's also playing at a level that will force Dallas to make some tough decisions as it tries to build a championship-contending team around Doncic.