If you’ve been watching the Dallas Mavericks for any length of time you know that their offense has been at its best when their point guard is working through the pick-and-roll, isolating defenders and hunting mismatches. Not all teams have the option of such a dynamic scorer and playmaker in clutch situations, let alone a guard in just his fourth year in the league making that kind of late game impact.
I, of course, am speaking of Jalen Brunson.
After a shoulder injury that required surgery and prematurely ended his sophomore season in the league, the 6’1 scoring guard announced himself last year as a legitimate sixth man. In Rick Carlisle’s offense, Brunson weaponized the spacing and honed his efficiency, shooting a jaw-dropping 80-percent inside three feet of the basket. His ascension under Carlisle wasn’t surprising really. Undersized scoring guards always excelled. And Carlisle is a coach that values poised and mature young talent.
But what Brunson has done early this season is a step further, and new coach Jason Kidd is giving him an opportunity to shoulder a larger load.
“Watching his career – not just at the NBA level – he’s a winner,” Kidd said last week after their first win against the San Antonio Spurs. “So being able to talk to him this summer...I told him his leadership is going to be key then. I think Jalen is a born leader, loves the moment of the game, tied or needing a stop. He’s a competitor. He could start in this league easily.”
It wasn’t long after this statement that Brunson made his way into the starting lineup. Never mind that rotation shifts were forced due to injuries. He’s taken full advantage of the moment in his two games as a starter, averaging 28 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists (50-percent from three, 63-percent from the floor).
The offseason was jam-packed full of debate on the Mavericks’ need for a second playmaker, to ease the load on Luka Doncic. Though it’s been just eight games Brunson has hands down been the best player on the roster, and that includes Doncic. Their one-point win against the Spurs Wednesday night was evidence of Brunson’s potential, essentially single-handedly winning the game on the road.
His ability to score isn’t breaking news. But something to monitor will be his ability to score late. Kidd has shown a confidence in Brunson that we haven’t seen in past seasons. In 2020-21 under Carlisle he logged 46 clutch minutes over 19 games, scoring 24 points total. This season in just three games Brunson has 13 points (5-of-5 from the field) in seven clutch minutes. They have won all three contests.
The ultimate goal is that Doncic can share playmaking duties so that he has the legs to compete late in games, and to diversify the offensive sets. Brunson may not be able to be a permanent starter with the Mavericks, given their need for someone to also run the bench offense. But whether it’s as a starter or beginning with the second unit, Brunson is making the case that he must be played late in games. Jason Kidd and assistant coach Igor Kokoskov look comfortable giving him looks when paired with Doncic, something that wasn’t always offered in Carlisle’s offense. And if Brunson can make good on that opportunity, the Mavericks could be a handful in meaningful moments.