Jalen Brunson was not named to the All-Star team, as Julius Randle is clearly the face of the Knicks right now.
But Brunson is clearly the heart of the team, and he may be the franchise’s most important acquisition in over a decade.
According to the latest NBA odds, the Knicks are at -154 to make the NBA Playoffs, and if they do get there, even through the play-in tournament, Brunson will be a central catalytic figure. Opposing defenders are constantly harassing and converging on Randle, especially late in games. When they do, Brunson is most likely to step forward and make a big shot. Throughout games, he is constantly challenging opponents with the best all-around play of his career.
Fans of the Knicks are often and annually disappointed by offseason acquisitions, and big-name players have bypassed the team as a destination for a long time. But team followers have to be thrilled with Brunson in his first year in New York, as he has exceeded expectations and was a significant All-Star snub. The Knicks may not be a championship contender or quite close to it yet, but Brunson is making the team very competitive every time the Knicks take the floor.
Brunson has elevated his game to new levels, as his 23.1 points per game is nearly 10 points above his career average. He is averaging 6.2 assists per game, and his career average is 4.1.
Brunson had made 92 three-pointers entering play on Feb. 7, a total that was just two three-pointers off last year’s career-high mark in a season. His usage rate is at a career-best 28.4.
The Knicks may be on an eventual path to becoming a stronger contender, and signing Brunson to a four-year deal may ultimately be looked back on as a pivotal step in that direction. The team badly needed a true point guard, yet Brunson has been even more than that. He may be the team’s most dependable scorer when it counts, and he is capable of putting pressure on opposing defenses in a variety of ways.
It is so hard to contain Brunson as he acts as the axis of the offense. He will penetrate and hit various types of shots in the paint or near the basket, as he knows how to outmaneuver the bigs and get his shots off in traffic. If an opportunity to score is not there, Brunson will draw the defense to him and get the ball to an open teammate to give him an advantage or keep the ball moving.
When teammates go cold, Brunson will keep the Knicks in games by hitting timely shots. He has a knack for burying threes when momentum is needed. When the games are on the line, and defenders are blanketing Randle, Brunson gives the team something it had been lacking the previous two seasons: another dangerous, consistent scoring option.
Brunson is the Knicks’ most effective player when it counts the most. He averages 4.1 clutch points per game. Only three guys who play regularly are better in the league than Brunson in that category (De’Aaron Fox, DeMar DeRozan, Zion Williamson). He ranks seventh among regulars in clutch free throws made. When the Knicks are in tight games in the fourth quarter, Brunson can score from anywhere on the floor.
New York still needs another scorer that defenses must heavily focus on to truly upgrade the offense to another level. That element does appear to be missing at times late in games when Randle is smothered, and only Brunson is consistently hitting important shots.
The Knicks, however, do have the hub of a promising team with Randle and Brunson while continuing to hopefully improve the squad around them.
Brunson did not get the All-Star nod, but his impact has been bigger on the team than that honor would indicate. It is already legitimate to ask if the Brunson signing has been the team’s most important move since the Carmelo Anthony trade. Randle did not make a huge splash right away when he signed with New York, as his rise to stardom came in his second season with the team.
We may eventually have to consider where the Brunson signing may ultimately rank with the best Knicks free-agent additions in recent franchise history. We cannot put him in the Allan Houston/John Starks/Anthony Mason range for impact, but he could potentially help change the course of the franchise more than Amare Stoudemire did. Brunson can surely end up as a top-five Knicks free-agent signing from the last few decades.
For now, though, while an All-Star selection is a nice salute, Brunson is helping to point the Knicks in a more positive direction, and that is more important than being involved in the most revered exhibition game in sports. If he continues on this path of operating as a crux of the team, Brunson can join the ranks of some of the most revered players in recent team history.
Hopefully, we will see him perform at such levels during a deep postseason run that has eluded the Knicks for such a long time.