It all started so magically. Jalen Brunson walked into the Villanova program, and into the starting lineup, and then into the competition presented by the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament at Madison Square Garden. He scored 18 points in a semifinal victory over Stanford. He delivered 13 more in the title game against Georgia Tech. He walked out of the Garden with the award for most valuable player.
This was what everyone expected from the most coveted point guard in the 2015 recruiting class.
OK, so not everyone.
His teammates demanded more. Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart had been around college basketball a combined 11 seasons. They’d been part of excellent Villanova teams that mostly crashed early in the NCAA Tournament. They wanted this to be different, knew it could be if Brunson were pulling in the same direction as everyone else.
“He’s just more to be a dominant, go-to guy. It’s in his DNA,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told Sporting News. “But Ryan Arch and Ochefu and Josh Hart and those guys, early in the season they’re saying, ‘He’s not doing all the little things. He’s just getting buckets.’ He was kind of playing to be the MVP, as opposed to playing to be part of the team and make the team good.
“And he figured that out. And when he did, we became a great team. It really took him realizing: When do we need him to take over, and when do we need him to be a set-up guy?”
Brunson averaged only 9.6 points his freshman year because that’s what Villanova needed to win the 2016 NCAA championship. Two years later, the Wildcats needed him to be a star, and he responded with the best season any point guard has produced in the past 15 years. His offensive rating of 128.5 that year was not matched by any pure playmaker in the 2010s. He shot a .521 percentage from the field, .599 on 2-pointers. With two championship rings and that peerless junior-year performance, Brunson earned our Sporting News college basketball Athlete of the Decade award.
Brunson had been a McDonald’s All-American, a top-20 recruit pursued ardently by Illinois (his home-state school) and Temple (his father’s alma mater), but a series of circumstances instead led to him finding a home at Villanova.
That first year was a challenging chemistry experiment because Arcidiacono was a three-year starter at point guard and ranked among the best pure leaders in Villanova’s rich history. Brunson never had been anything but the guy who had the ball in his hands. How could this possibly work?
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“On Jalen’s visit, we had him stay with Arch, and those two became really good friends,” Wright told SN. “On the road, we had those two room together. They were both so intelligent, and both of them figured out how to interact with each other on the court.
“They are both so intelligent, have such high emotional intelligence and basketball IQ that they figured out. Both of them knew that for us to be successful they had to play together, and they had to each give in a little bit. Both of them understood it took pressure off to be playing with another great point guard.”
As a freshman, Brunson primarily was a steadying force. He shot only seven times a game and didn’t control the ball enough to provide big assists numbers. His ability to dominate was available when necessary, though.
“Everybody in the city was kind of mad he didn’t go to Temple. And there was all kinds of hype going into that game,” Wright said. “And it was at their place, and they had nasty signs up about him and were booing him. And he had 25 and totally dominated the game. I know everybody went into the game thinking it was going to be tough on him, and I think the older guys were thinking: We’ll take care of him. And he went in and just took over the game.”
Before his junior year, Brunson declined invitations to attend the workout-type camps where players can showcase themselves in front of pro scouts. Why? Because staying on campus and taking classes meant he could be in position to graduate in three years. If he were to leave for the NBA Draft at that point, he’d already have a degree.
He worked on his body and his game, and when Arcidiacono or NBA star Kyle Lowry returned to campus for a run, “You could see this kid was on another level,” Wright said. “You just knew this dude was ready to be dominant. And you never worried: Could he handle that? This is what is natural to him.”
In that brilliant junior year, there were many games like that freshman-year visit to Temple: 31 points in his return to face the Owls, 31 at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, 31 at Marquette. He was surrounded by future pros Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, so it wasn’t always necessary for Brunson to score big. When it was, as when the team went cold on the road at Creighton, he scored eight consecutive points late in the second half, 13 of the team’s final 23, and helped rally the team to overtime before the Wildcats absorbed a rare defeat.
“He just had an incredible knack for knowing when we needed him to take over,” Wright said. “That was the beauty of the crowing of his career. We would have games where we’d be up 20 and he would have 12 points and continue to make the play, and we’d show the team the next day on film. Look: This guy is a candidate for national player of the year, and we would show a 2-on-1 fastbreak and he could shoot this layup or he could give it to Omari. And he gives it to Omari. In the post he’d be one-on-one and he’d kick it out to Mikal for a three. And he’d do it all the time.
“Even in the national championship game, he was in foul trouble, playing defense and rebounding and got caught up in trying to take a charge. He wasn’t worried about trying to be the leading scorer in that game. It was amazing.
“Two-time national champ, graduated in three years, national POY. He is just the consummate Villanova basketball player, everything you’d want a Villanova basketball player to be. And we’ve had so many great ones.”
By the numbers
• 115 starts in 116 games
• 103-13 overall record
• 13-1 NCAA Tournament record
• .510 career shooting percentage
• Six national player of the year trophies
What they're saying:
"You peel his face off, he'd probably have wires coming out of it. He's phenomenal." — Chris Mack, former Xavier coach