Some of the most important things in our lives are boring. The roads, bridges, and electrical wires that make up the infrastructure of your city aren’t that interesting. But if they fall into disrepair, you definitely notice.
Backup point guards are like that. When you have a competent one, they’re boring and don’t do all the fun stuff that shows up in highlight reels. You wish they were good enough to start. But when you don’t have one, you find yourself wondering if Jameer Nelson still has any juice left in the tank.
When the Dallas Mavericks drafted Jalen Brunson in 2018, they wanted a young, competent backup point guard to grow along with Luka Doncic. If Brunson turned out to be better than a backup, even better. So far he’s excelled in the role.
In three seasons with the Mavericks, Brunson has averaged 10.2 points per game. Last season he stepped up his scoring, averaging a career-high 12.6 ppg. This came on increased efficiency, as he shot 40 percent from deep and 52 percent from the field. He also nearly doubled his free throws, averaging 2.2 attempts per game from the charity stripe. His percentage at the line dipped, however, from 81 percent in 2019-20 to 79 percent in 2020-21.
Brunson provides a scoring punch for Dallas off the bench when Doncic sits. He’s also been effective enough in lineups with Doncic. His defense is solid, as well. He’s able to chase small guards on the perimeter and is stout enough to hold his ground against bigger guards. Brunson is essentially the perfect backup point guard. But there’s one aspect of his game that’s concerning.
Can Brunson take the next step as a facilitator? As of now he’s plateaued as a playmaker. He’s averaged 3.3 assists per game for his career. Last season he put up a career high 3.5 per game, but that’s not significantly better than his other two seasons in the NBA. It’s also consistent with his play in college, where he averaged 3.7 assists per game over three years at Villanova.
You might look at Brunson’s assist percentage (29.4) and be tempted to think he’s doing fine. After all, that’s nearly a third of the Mavericks’ assists for the season. But that speaks more to the dearth of playmakers on Dallas rather than Brunson’s ability to run an offense.
Too often, Brunson drove into the paint only to find he couldn’t get up a decent attempt at the rim. He lacks a taller point guard’s vision in a crowd, so he either passed back out to the perimeter to a teammate smothered by a defender or put up a tough fadeaway in the lane.
Brunson averaged almost one assist more per game in wins than he did in losses. It shows that the Mavericks are just better when he’s moving the ball. They desperately need Brunson to run the offense when Doncic sits.
Best Case Scenario
If Brunson takes a leap in playmaking, the Mavericks become a slightly more dangerous team. Last season, the offense fell flat when Doncic was off the court. If the Mavericks can stop losing ground when the bench unit is on the floor and maybe even win some of those minutes, they’ll win a few more games here and there.
Brunson doesn’t have to be the second coming of Steve Nash. But he does have to run the offense and look to get his teammates buckets, rather than think scoring first. If he can get others involved and still score at a similar rate, the Mavericks will have one of the better benches in the NBA.
Worst Case Scenario
Brunson’s shot could regress. If his passing stayed the same, the Mavericks would have a significantly less efficient player on their hands. They simply can’t afford for Brunson to become a poor shooter and have the ball stop in his hands. Brunson’s shooting percentages were at least five percent higher than his previous career highs. Was last season the new norm or an aberration? If Brunson can’t sustain that efficiency and still doesn’t develop as a playmaker, Dallas will have to start searching for a new backup point guard.
Jalen Brunson’s the best draft pick made by the Dallas Mavericks in the last decade, outside of one Luka Doncic. He’s improved every year he’s played basketball so it’s not crazy to expect the developmental leap various Maverick employees thinks he’s capable of. A big year for Brunson will help secure his next big contract and push the Mavericks towards their goal of a NBA championship.