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Jalen Brunson found a valuable role with the Dallas Mavericks

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The undersized guard had a massive regular season, becoming the Mavericks go-to sixth man.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Season in review

In the midst of so much adversity league-wide, Jalen Brunson had a career season. The third year scoring guard took a step forward, leading the bench unit in tandem with Tim Hardaway Jr. After a shoulder injury ended his 2019 season early, Brunson returned with bests in minutes, points, (technically assists), and rebounds, and was one of the most reliable weapons for Rick Carlisle.

His biggest jump was as a finisher:

Like many undersized guards, Brunson has grown his ability to change pace off the dribble, keeping a defender off balance and opening lanes. This combined with his own physicality, leveraging his body on drives, made him lethal near the rim where he shot 80-percent inside three feet (a near 18-percent improvement at the rim from the previous season).

While the 24-year old upped his scoring, his playmaking for others plateaued. This season drove home that Brunson is a scoring guard in a point guard body, as his already low assist-percentage fell to 21.3-percent — a full six percent drop. This is what could separate him from being a starting point guard, like many have projected this year. His effectiveness is real, evidenced by his averages and by coming in fourth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. But his ability to create for other still requires improvement.

Brunson also made his postseason debut this season, missing the bubble playoffs due to injury. It should have been no surprise that Brunson would have a tough time against the Los Angeles Clippers — he’s averaged just over five points over his career against the lengthy defensive team, his second worst average only to the Lakers.

While he had a quality Game 1 — 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting — he only reached double digits once more and scored just 18 points in the final four games. His troubles scoring, and liability on defense, got to the point that Carlisle opted to throw Trey Burke out there for some of Brunson’s minutes. Not the best way to end a season where you are a near-Sixth Man of the Year finalist.

Best Game

There were multiple times this season where Brunson became the featured player in a game Luka Doncic was out for rest (see his 31 points, five rebounds, seven assists in a early season loss to the Bulls). But when it comes to his future with the Mavericks playing alongside Doncic, no game looked more promising than his 20 points (8-of-15 from the floor, 4-of-7 from three) four rebounds, three assists in an April win against the Utah Jazz.

This game for many role players was the ideal of what the 2021 Mavericks could be. Brunson was sharp off the dribble, engaged as a catch and shoot spacer, and was working some magic off the dribble. He looked particularly comfortable taking a high ball screen and stepping into his three off the dribble. This game also featured a few really nice assists in traffic.

And though it didn’t end in a basket, the 1:35 mark below really highlights his ability to get even the Defensive Player of the Year off balance near the basket.

Contract Status

Brunson is entering the final season of a four-year/$6.1 million deal he signed prior to his rookie season. This final year on the deal becomes fully guaranteed on August 1, and will be a steal given his contributions at $1.8 million.

This becomes an interesting situation to monitor. Expiring deals aren’t nearly as valuable as they were several seasons ago. But many organizations around the league see Brunson as a potential starting point guard and his stock perhaps cannot rise any higher. Making matters more interesting is that due to Brunson’s somewhat unusual contract for a second rounder, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. If the Mavericks are looking to make roster upgrades, expect Brunson’s name to be floating around in potential deals.

Looking ahead

With leadership turnover it can be hard to predict how role players will be viewed and utilized. Brunson, whether on the team or used in a deal, is an asset for the Mavericks. This will become a make or break season for Brunson’s future. As stated above, I’d expect his name to be mentioned in plenty of trade packages as new general manager Nico Harrison looks to upgrade the roster, even if Brunson stays put in Dallas.

As part of the Mavericks core, he should maintain his role of second unit leader. While he has clearly been one of the five best Mavericks over the last year, and has shown flashes of playing well next to Doncic, Brunson’s lack of defensive versatility next to Luka is not a great pairing. His size being what it is, he is the ideal sixth man floor leader the Mavericks will need off the bench in a do or die first season for new head coach Jason Kidd.