In advance of the 2018 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops will be breaking down prospects, both from the college ranks and internationally, with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks will be evaluating in the coming days. More than 50 prospects will be profiled in this space and, in the end, the goal is to inform Hawks fans prior to June 21, when the Hawks are scheduled to make four selections with the first 34 picks.
Today’s breakdown centers on Villanova guard Jalen Brunson.
Jalen Brunson racked up the hardware during his three-year college career, especially during his junior season, when he won his second NCAA title, earned AP Player of the Year honors as well as the Wooden Award and more. After starting 115 games over three seasons for Villanova, Brunson enters the 2018 NBA draft with as much of a resume and pedigree as one could possibly have after three seasons of college basketball.
Brunson, the son of former NBA player and assistant coach Rick Brunson, is a 6’2 point guard who averaged 18.9 points and 4.6 assists as a junior while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from the three point line. There are very few questions about Brunson’s basketball skills. He is a mature and skilled player. The question marks attached to Brunson’s draft profile lie solely with his size and athleticism.
Brunson has quite a lot in common with the 2016-17 Wooden award winner Frank Mason. After a stellar four-year college career at Kansas, Mason was selected No. 34 overall by the Sacramento Kings. Mason entered the league as under-sized NBA point guard without exceptional quickness or athleticism to offset his lack of size. But his maturity and solid fundamental skill set made him a bona fide NBA prospect, even though he projected, and still does, as a backup NBA point guard.
Like Mason, Brunson is projected to go somewhere late in the first round or early in the second round and the Hawks could certainly target him with the No. 30 or No. 34 overall pick. The comparisons with Mason may not be quite fair as Brunson does stand two to three inches taller than Mason. Still, it is rare for a 6’2 player to be an impact player at the NBA level without having some elite level of quickness and athleticism.
If we want to use cliches, we would say that Brunson is a a floor general, a coach on the floor and a point guard’s point guard. He is certainly all three of those things. At the one position, Brunson can score at every level of the offense while being a true distributor of the basketball making everyone on the floor with him better.
The question mark on offense is whether he can score at every level working against, bigger, longer and faster NBA defenders. If any under-sized and marginally athletic player can do it, Brunson can. He has every trick in the bag on offense. Even being a left-handed player helps give him an edge as defenders at every level of basketball seem to struggle to adapt to defending left-handed players. It is a slight edge, but an edge nonetheless.
While there are slight questions about how Brunson’s offensive game will translate to the NBA, it is the defensive end that creates the most doubts about Brunson’s game. In today’s NBA world, most teams prefer to play lineups that are extremely versatile and switchable on the defensive end. It is far too easy for teams to force switches and get the match-ups they want. Brunson could be a liability in this regard if things go poorly.
To be even more clear, Brunson projects as a player who can only defend one position, the point guard position, and it is not 100 percent clear that Brunson would be successful defending starting NBA point guards. The fact is that most players Brunson defends, even without getting switched on to wings or bigs, will be both bigger and faster than Brunson.
Brunson does have a very strong fundamental game on the defensive end. His footwork is very good. He understands how to use his body. He is willing to play with physicality. He anticipates, sees the floor and understands how to play in the team defensive concept. With all of that said, Brunson will still have to prove that he can keep NBA point guards in front of him.
A fit for the Hawks?
The Hawks certainly have needs at the point guard position. Malcolm Delaney, who played more than 1,000 minutes as a backup point guard for the Hawks last season, is now a restricted free agent. Isaiah Taylor does return and, while Taylor had impressive stretches of play last season, he certainly does not have a strangle hold on the backup point guard position. Simply put, there are minutes to be had at the position Brunson plays, even if Dennis Schröder remains on the roster in October.
As for style of play, its difficult to purely assess Brunson’s fit due to Atlanta’s coaching change. But style of play is not rocket science. Every NBA team needs mature, reliable players who are skilled and play within the team concept on both ends of the floor. Brunson certainly fits that mold.
While we made the comparison to Mason, a more relevant comparison in terms of NBA projection might Fred VanVleet. VanVleet had a solid four-year college career at Wichita State but still was not enough to get him drafted. While Brunson will certainly get drafted, perhaps even in the first round, VanVleet is a good comp in some respects in that he is a skilled, under-sized point guard without elite athleticism to compensate.
Playing in his second NBA season for the Raptors, VanVleet became an indispensable player working off the bench behind an All-Star point guard in Kyle Lowry for a team that won an Eastern Conference best 59 games. As the season progressed, VanVleet played more and more in critical stretches, deeper and later into games. His performance this season has landed him as a finalist for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.
Two summers ago, every NBA team whiffed on VanVleet. If Brunson slips to the second round, we may look back in one to two seasons and say that many NBA teams whiffed on Brunson. For teams that label Brunson as too small and too slow, they will be writing him off far too quickly, as Brunson is on the bigger end of the guards that get labelled too small. And it could be argued that Brunson is on the quicker end of the guards who get labeled as too slow. After all, there is quickness. And there is basketball quickness. Brunson has basketball quickness.
Wherever he lands in the draft, the NBA team that selects him will have a strong, mature skilled player who will be a role model for other players from day one. And the team that selects him perhaps may project him as their backup point guard for years to come. But, they may just have their future starting point guard on their hands and just not yet realize it.