Jalen Brunson was absolutely fantastic against the Utah Jazz. He is currently leading the NBA in total points scored in the playoffs. He has done this while having only four turnovers in six games. To put that number of turnovers in perspective relative to his ball handling load, Dwight Powell has five turnovers despite playing less than half as many minutes and handling a miniscule ball handling load relative to Brunson. Luka Doncic has three times as many turnovers Brunson despite missing half the games in this series.
All of this success would appear to have answered any questions regarding how Brunson would deal with the length of playoff defenses.
Except, it hasn’t. The Jazz are the smallest team in the playoffs on the perimeter. Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson combined to play 573 minutes in the first round for the Jazz. Clarkson is the tallest at 6’4” and he is not exactly a good defender. Mitchell came into the NBA as a solid defender despite his 6’1” stature, but he played one of the worst defensive playoff series in recent memory. The play below is an example of the Jazz defense against Brunson.
Royce O’Neale is the nominal “stopper” for the Jazz on the perimeter but he is also only 6’4”. The Jazz did not play a backcourt player taller than 6’4” outside of Nickeil Alexander-Walker’s five minutes of garbage time.
The concern with Brunson in the playoffs has never been that the stage is too big for him. He was a two time collegiate national champion. He was the National Player of the Year. He was the Player of the Tournament in his junior season as he led Villanova to his second national championship. He can handle the pressure of a big stage.
The concern was that he has physical limitations which can be exploited by the highest level teams. Those concerns were manifested against the Los Angeles Clippers last season when the Clippers collection of long and athletic defenders rendered him virtually unplayable without Luka Doncic. He averaged only 16.3 minutes per game in that series and the Mavericks were outscored by a mind boggling 34.7 points per 100 possessions with Brunson on the court without Luka.
This is not meant to downplay the success of Brunson in these playoffs versus the Jazz. The struggles of Brunson last season were the responsibility of the team as much as the player. The Mavericks had absolutely no ball handling to compliment Brunson when Luka was on the bench. The Clippers had three players with All Defensive Team pedigrees. Two of them are 6’7” with albatross wingspans. It was Brunson’s first playoff series. Of course Brunson struggled in that situation.
But it is important to realize that the concern of a player struggling against length in the playoffs cannot, by definition, be answered dominating a team that does not have length. This is where the Phoenix Suns present such a fun challenge in the coming round. The Suns employ Brunson’s college teammate, Mikal Bridges, who will have his own All Defensive Team selection as soon as the team is announced this season. Bridges is 6’6” with a 7’2” wingspan and the exact type of player that Brunson skeptics are worried will give him problems. The Suns also employ only one short guard, Chris Paul, who has a well earned reputation of defending much better than his size.
This will not be an easy series for Brunson but it does offer him an opportunity to once again prove those who have doubted him wrong. He has been doing so for his whole career. Brunson fell to the 33rd selection in the draft despite all of his college success. Former shadow GM Haralabos Voulgaris attempted to trade Brunson as one of his first moves. There are still many who question whether or not he will be worth the incredibly large contract he will command in the coming off-season.
He will be worth that contract and the Mavericks must pay it. They do not gain cap room by letting him leave. The Mavericks have set him up to be more successful this season. With the addition of Spencer Dinwiddie, the Mavericks are never in a situation where Brunson is the only player on the court capable of creating a shot for himself or someone else. Because of Brunson’s ability to toggle between an on the ball creator or an off the ball shooter and secondary playmaker this addition is huge for him. Brunson will pass this test and show everyone that he is worthy of the contract he is going to get. He just has not done so yet, because it is impossible to pass the test before he takes it.