If Jalen Brunson proved anything in his first season, it’s that he can fill in wherever you need him.
This past Mavericks season was segmented, to put it lightly. There was the opening four-game stretch without Harrison Barnes, and then a strong 13-4 stretch, then Dirk’s return, Dennis Smith Jr.’s absence, J.J. Barea’s Achilles injury, and two enormously consequential trades in the span of a week. This all happened before the All-Star break.
Through it all, Brunson’s minutes load, level of involvement, and even his position changed. Just look at how his minutes changed as the season unfolded. (Click to enlarge.)
It’s not surprising that any player would become more productive overall when receiving more minutes per game. But what’s most interesting about Brunson’s season, at least from this particular point of view, is that as he received more minutes, generally his effective field goal percentage would climb high as well. For the last 31 games of his season, he posted a 54.6 effective field goal percentage on a 20.3 percent usage rate. Players this season with similar eFG percentages and usage include Eric Gordon (52.5, 21.3), Jaylen Brown (52.5, 21.2), Terrence Ross (53.4, 22.7), and Eric Bledsoe (54.8, 22.3).
Now, each of those four players generated that efficiency for playoff teams, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? At this stage of his career, Brunson is more of a supporting or complementary player than a centerpiece. There is nothing wrong with that. He’s a rookie! But if you’re going to play heavy minutes, you’ve got to play efficiently. Each of those four players did that, and so did Brunson — and he did so without the benefit of playing alongside an All-Star, unlike the four players listed above. (In my opinion, Luka Doncic was an All-Star this season, but rules are rules.) Presumably, Doncic will continue his climb next season, and this time Brunson will likely be joined by another All-Star in Kristaps Porzingis, not to mention whoever else the Mavericks might add this summer. So instead of facing more pressure or increased attention based on his strong finish to the season, he might actually have an easier time getting to his spots and scoring.
Brunson’s strong close to the season, along with his productive cameos throughout the year during times in which his backcourt mates were injured, suggests that he can be a very positive contributor to the team moving forward. And it’s not as if he only had great games who were counting down to their post-season trips to Cancun. Each of his seven highest-scoring games after the All-Star break came against eventual playoff teams: 18 against against OKC, Houston, and Orlando; 20 and 22 against Denver; 24 against Indiana; and a career-high 34 against San Antonio. (Dallas went 2-5 in those games, with two losses coming by one point each.) Brunson was at his best against the best teams.
What exactly makes him an effective player? While he’s nowhere near complete by any means, he’s demonstrated that he can fit in today’s pace-and-space league. Nearly 44 percent of Brunson’s assists in halfcourt situations were to a 3-point shooter, and another 40 percent went for either dunks or layups, per NBA Miner. According to Synergy, Brunson ranked in the 84th percentile league-wide in shooting efficiency on jumpers off the dribble, scoring more efficiently in that regard than players like D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Jamal Murray, and even Klay Thompson, albeit on far fewer attempts.
It should be noted, though, that most of Brunson’s productivity for the entire season came during the second half; he played just 84 minutes during the entire month of November, for example, and played more than three times that number of minutes in February (270), despite playing in the same number of games (10). He had a relatively intense workload for half the season. Following J.J. Barea’s Achilles injury, for example, Brunson sported a 50.4 effective field goal percentage across 38 games on 133 pull-up jumpers, per NBA Stats. That’s very solid efficiency from any player, let alone a rookie, and that’s a large chunk of the season. And until that point, his eFG% on pull-up Js was just 36.6 percent. Again, he improved as the season went on.
Brunson probably won’t win any awards this season. He didn’t make an All-Rookie team, finishing tied for 14th in voting. Only Mitchell Robinson received more votes among second-round picks. So while he might not take home a trophy or a medal for his efforts this season, he’s already vastly outperformed his draft position. He already ranks eighth in points per game and fourth in assists per game all-time among 33rd picks, to give you an idea of what’s to be expected from players taken at that point on draft night. How he fell that far, I will never know. The Mavs certainly won’t be complaining, though.
He’s also already shown he can be a valuable piece to this franchise moving forward, no matter how he fits in. He was a second-round rookie who worked his way from essentially backup/third-string shooting guard to starting point guard in the span of just over half a season, performing well as a fill-in rotation player and then thriving as a starter in the backcourt next to Doncic. I’m not sure where he’ll be slotted on next season’s roster, but the Mavs front office knows that it’s got a reliable, solid, productive young piece in Brunson for the future.