When the Dallas Mavericks drafted Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson, they made it clear they saw value in his experience, work ethic and winning track record. Never mind that the Mavs have always been fond of undersized point guards, Brunson was seen as a versatile and mature guard who looked to be a contributor on day one.
No one knew then how much playing time would open up for the rookie. And to his credit, Brunson stepped up to show the Mavericks may have added a longterm contributor to their squad.
It seems like any time someone complains (me) about the Mavericks having too many point guards when they need help in so many other areas, suddenly that abundance of depth becomes useful. At the start of the season Jalen Brunson needed to really battle to find consistent playing time behind Dennis Smith Jr., J.J. Barea and Luka Doncic as primary ball-handlers on the depth chart.
The first quarter of the season he averaged fewer than 13 minutes per game, making it difficult to find any rhythm in the offense (he was shooting 27 percent from three in that stretch). Still, Brunson kept plugging away, proving to Rick Carlisle that he should stay part of the rotation.
Then came Dennis Smith Jr.’s absence, Barea’s injury, and eventually DSJ’s trade that suddenly left Brunson as one of the only point guards on the roster. And that’s when Brunson really started to show growth. Besides seeing a spike in minutes (up to 29 minutes per game), Brunson boosted stats across the board: 13 points, 4.5 assists, three rebounds, while shooting 35 percent from three.
Brunson is comfortable initiating offense, though he still operates better off the ball, especially as he’s found his shot. It has made him an interesting compliment to Luka Doncic, playing off his penetration and kick-outs. And because Carlisle has made it clear he values having two ball-handlers on the floor, it was a bright spot to see that Brunson could fill that role while not always needing the ball to be effective.
Brunson will be entering the second year of his rookie contract, a four year deal that pays him $1.4 million next season. The first three years of the deal are guaranteed.
After showing in the last half of the season that he’s worth the investment, Brunson’s role could still be a little muddy entering next season. The lack of clarity hinges on the Mavericks’ free agency strategy and success.
First, depending on how you see the various role players who are returning or could re-sign with the team, the Mavericks really need to find three new starters to join Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. That most likely bumps Brunson back to the bench, after starting 28 of the final 31 games he appeared in. And really, that’s where Brunson makes the most sense. It’s too easy to slot him as the Mavs’ new J.J. Barea, but in a few years it wouldn’t be surprising to see him filling that role in Dallas.
Speaking of Barea, it seems pretty clear the Mavericks will be re-signing their injured veteran point guard. Depending on his rehab and health next season, it will be interesting to see how Carlisle doles out minutes to these two. Brunson showed him a lot at the end of the year, but Barea is Carlisle’s security blanket and was having a really nice season before he went down.
Finally, the Mavericks will be looking to be competitive immediately, with their two young stars in tow, and if they have a tough time locking in a new core this summer, players like Brunson could be on the trade block. Brunson looks to be a solid contributor for the Mavs, but the front office is typically pretty savvy in the trade market with their role players.
But assuming he’s in Dallas for at least all of next season, Brunson should provide quality team basketball and shooting off the bench. Key areas he should look to improve on are first, his on-ball defense, where it’s not likely he’ll ever be a shut down defender because of his length but could be a pest along the perimeter. And second, his free throw rate, because it’s clear he knows how to leverage his body around the rim, but he needs to learn to draw clearer contact to force the whistle. Assuming he builds on his rookie season, Jalen Brunson could prove a second round steal for the Mavericks.