In a year marked by the pandemic and Kristaps Porzingis's setbacks, the Dallas Mavericks got a much-needed boost. Jalen Brunson, the third-year point guard out of Villanova, is quietly becoming one of the most efficient guards in the league. Not only that, Brunson might be the most versatile player on the Mavericks roster.
This is a bold statement for a player on a team that features Luka Dončić. While Luka is a player who can do almost anything with the ball, his role is always the same. He is the key cog of the offense and everybody around has to adapt to him. Dončić makes life easy for role players like Dorian Finney-Smith or Maxi Kleber. Play defense, set screens, space the floor, and Dončić will get players a lot of open looks. However, for players that are used to having the ball in their hands, playing with Dončić requires adjustments.
Jalen Brunson was always the point guard who was running the offense in college. When Dallas drafted him, he had to adapt his game to fit the needs of a team that evolves around Dončić. This wasn’t always easy for Brunson, who showed glimpses in his first two seasons but had many struggles as well.
"I went from being one of a go-to guys on a team, to not knowing if you are going to play, especially in my first year," Brunson told the media this week.
Brunson made a huge leap this season
Brunson never stopped working and kept playing with confidence. In his first two seasons, his confidence would sometimes frustrate Mavericks' fans, when Brunson would try to do too much. But Brunson always saw himself as Dončić’s peer, not just his backup.
"My confidence comes from my work ethic," Brunson said.
This year his confidence and all the work he put in are paying off. Brunson increased his scoring from 8.2 points per game to 12.8 this season. He is shooting 53 percent from the floor, 40 percent from the three-point line, and 85 percent from the free-throw line. These are all career highs by a significant margin.
The change in Brunson’s play and his body this season is glaring. Brunson recently switched to a pescatarian diet and looks leaner and faster. He is more explosive at getting to the rim and pushing the ball in transition. The other big improvement Brunson made is in his shooting. Brunson went from being an inefficient shooter last season to become one of the most efficient scoring guards in the league. Per Cleaning the Glass, Brunson scores 130.3 points per 100 shot attempts, which ranks him fourth in NBA among all guards who played more than 500 minutes. The only three guards that are more efficient scorers than Brunson are Steph Curry, Zach LaVine, and James Harden.
Figuring out how to play on a Luka Dončić centric team
More than his statistical improvements, it seems that Brunson figured out how to play and thrive alongside Luka Dončić.
I make sure I talk to my mom, talk to my dad, about the strategic things and what I can do," Brunson said. "To play off one of the best players in the game right now, obviously Luka who’s going to have a ball a lot. How am I going to be effective when I don’t have the ball and how am I going to make plays at both sides of the floor.”
One of Brunson’s key strengths is his ability to play with, without, or play off Dončić. He is the best Maverick at being able to play both on or off the ball. Brunson can create his own shot, be the playmaker for others, or space the floor as a catch-and-shoot threat.
Let’s look into different roles on offense at which Brunson is excelling this season.
Primary ball-handler and pick and roll option off the bench
The primary role for Brunson is to run the offense when Dončić is on the bench. The Mavericks run a pick and roll heavy offense, they are second in the league behind the Utah Jazz in pick and roll frequency. Dončić is one of the best pick and roll players in the league, but the Mavericks' pick and roll offense doesn’t drop off when Brunson is running the show. Brunson has been one of the most efficient pick and roll players in the league this season. His 1.15 points per possession in pick and roll is top 94 percentile in the league. Brunson is great at getting to his spot after a screen, especially if the defending big is in a drop coverage.
Brunson is making 53 percent of his short mid-range shots, and 55 percent of his long mid-range shots, which are very efficient numbers.
Attacking the paint and finishing at the rim
Brunson’s mid-range efficiency is not surprising as he has been a fairly efficient mid-range shooter throughout his career. The most impressive improvement this year is his finishing at the basket. Brunson is currently shooting at an elite rate of 75 percent at the rim. This is Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard level. Finishing at the basket is where Brunson’s improvement in his body is most evident. Brunson looks much more explosive and is beating defenders to the rim off the dribble and in straight-line drives.
When Brunson plays without Dončić on the floor, 26 percent of his shots are at the rim, which is amazing for a guard his size. Brunson made some absurd finishes at the rim this season that make you wonder if this is who he is now as a player.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle often talks about the importance of paint attacks and how much more efficient the offense is after a drive into the paint. If Brunson can continue at getting to the rim and finish at the current pace it will be a big boost for the Maverick offense.
Aggressive scorer in transition and early offense
The second area where his improvement in speed and explosiveness show is transition play and paint attacks in early offense. Per Synergy Brunson scores 1.491 points in transition, which is in the top 95 percentile in the league. When he is the primary ball-handler, he pushes the ball in transition or attacks the rim in early offense before the opposing defense is set.
Dallas improved from 17th place in transition efficiency last season, to sixth place this season, and Brunson is a big part of that.
Elite spot-up shooter
When playing with Dončić, Brunson transforms into a secondary scorer who is making opposing defenses pay by hitting catch and shoot threes or by attacking close-outs. Prior to this season, Brunson was a 35 percent career three-point shooter. This season he is at 40 percent, and this mark increases to 45 percent when playing alongside Dončić. Brunson is making the most out of open looks he’s getting when defenses collapse around Dončič. 28 percent of Brunson’s shots are wide-open shots, and he is making 47 percent of them.
If Brunson wanted to play more with Dončić, it was crucial for him to not only increase three-point accuracy, but also frequency. He has done that this season: he’s shooting 3.2 three pointers per game, a healthy increase from 2.1 last season. With Dončić on the floor, 43 percent of Brunson’s shots are from beyond the arc.
Another area that Brunson excels in is being the second point of attack next to Dončić. Dončić and Brunson have developed nice chemistry together, where Dončić would often find Brunson with a quick pass once defenses collapsed around him. Brunson is very good at attacking close-outs when opposing defenses are already in their rotations. Brunson has developed into a three-level scorer: he is comfortable hitting the catch and shoot three, driving to the rim, or hitting a mid-range pull-up jump shot.
Because of Brunson’s evolution into a capable secondary scorer next to Dončić, Carlisle increased their time together on the floor. Last season Brunson played only 30 percent of his minutes with Dončić, this season this increased to 55 percent. Carlise is comfortable with Brunson attacking if he feels Brunson has a favorable matchup. We saw this in a game against Atlanta where Brunson repeatedly attacked Trae Young.
Not only is Brunson sharing more minutes with Dončić on the floor, but Carlisle is also closing more games with Brunson on the floor in the fourth quarter. Below you can see the patterns for minutes when both Brunsons and Dončić are on the court together, and how their joined minutes at the end of the games increased.
Areas for growth
Brunson's development into a great secondary ball-handler and scorer who can play next to Dončić is one of the better Mavericks’ stories this season. However, there are areas that Brunson can improve. The most notable one is playmaking for others and his on-court chemistry with the other Mavericks’ star Kristaps Porzinigis. Per Synergy Brunson is excellent in the pick and roll when he creates his own shot, but average when he is passing the ball. I recently wrote about Dončić - Porzinigs lineups performance and how Porzinigis is a much less efficient scorer with Dončić off the floor. A lot of Porzingis’s non-Dončić minutes are with Brunson on the floor.
Brunson needs to do better to help Porzingis get better shots in non-Dončić minutes. With Brunson on the floor, Porzingis shoots less at the rim, and both his field goal percentage and three-point percentage drop significantly. Per NBA.com's stats page, Porzinigs is shooting only 33 percent off Brunson’s passes, compared to 54 percent when Dončić is passing to him.
The NBA game is faster and the floor is getting more open with more shooters on the floor. The current game favors skilled players who can shoot, attack, and make right and quick decisions. It seems that Mavericks have another player who can do that in Jalen Brunson. It will be interesting to watch what happens with Brunson's minutes and role in the second half of the season. Will Carlisle increase his minutes, maybe even insert him in the starting lineup? Would Brunson remain to be such an efficient scorer with increased minutes, more shots, and higher usage?
One thing is certain, Jalen Brunson will be ready and confident.