On one hand, Jalen Brunson is a junior who started in two national championship games and leads the NCAA in offensive rating for the No. 1 team in the country.
“If your peeled his face off you’d probably have wires coming out of it,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said of Brunson. “He’s phenomenal.”
On the other hand, it’s easy to lose track of Brunson in the national picture behind Collin Sexton, Trevon Duval and especially Trae Young.
Young, who has surprised pretty much everybody over the past two months after dropping 43 points on Oregon and double digit assists in more than half of his games, shoots so many 3s off the dribble that his presence changes the scheme the opposing defense has to run.
Oklahoma’s freshman point guard took an immediate star-turn in college by following thirty-foot threes with one-handed cross court passes. Even though Young’s success has led to him shooting up NBA draft boards, he’s still not clear of the nit-picking that any prospect faces in the lead up to the draft.
At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Young has only average size and speed for an NBA point guard, and it’s rare for a point guard without elite athleticism to be taken in the top ten. There’s arguably only just one of them from the past four drafts, and Sexton and Duvall fall into the former category.
You could ask, “How will Young hang defensively against such an explosive point guard crop?” or “Will he continue to be able to create separation as a ball-handler,” and your concerns would merit attention.
It’s difficult to picture what Young’s ceiling would look like in the NBA (because we can’t will him into Stephen Curry using our minds) despite his dominance at the college level.
But there’s one potential archetype of Young’s future that excites me: what if his play in the NBA mirrors Brunson’s performance at Villanova? What if he becomes the multi-faceted robot Chris Mack was raving about?
If you haven’t noticed from the attention Jay Wright has received from NBA teams, including the Sixers and the Knicks, Villanova’s coach manages the program like an NBA coach. The style of Wright’s offense would fit the professional game, as its pace, ball movement and reliance on a primary ball-handler have led to the Wildcats’ boasting one of the NCAA’s best offenses over the last several years.
For the past three years, Brunson has been that point guard, and his production has skyrocketed in his junior season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, no player in the past eight seasons has had an offensive rating as high as Brunson’s with a usage percentage of at least 20 percent. He’s on pace to become the first major conference player in the past 20 seasons to average 19 points and own a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Brunson hasn’t turned the ball over more than three times in a game since last February.
For the record, Brunson averages 19.3 points and 5.2 assists in just 30 minutes. He has a Big East leading 69.4 true shooting percentage and makes 48 percent of his threes.
Even though junior Mikal Bridges is a likely lottery pick and a talented scorer like Brunson, Villanova’s point guard has an undeniable control over the offense.
His consistent and steady presence meshed with his variety of offensive weapons have led to him standing out since his freshman season. He shines alongside Bridges like he did next to Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono, the incumbent starting point guard who ceded to the 2-guard spot during Brunson’s freshman season.
Still, it’s difficult to see Brunson getting drafted in the first round this summer or next. His lack of size and strength will probably come back to haunt him, and the flash that separates his game from Young’s will be a difference maker as well.
But it’s hard to see Young not ending up a top-ten pick. He’s too skilled, and his abilities align too well with the way the game is being played in the pace-and-space era that Curry is defining.
It’s unfair to set our expectations for Young’s ceiling at a league-transcending level. If sparking a revolution across all levels of basketball was that easy, Curry wouldn’t have been the only one to do it in the last five years. And as much as Curry spaces the floor, there isn’t enough room for another Steph in the NBA.
Young doesn’t need to model his game after Brunson’s altogether, but top-level defenders will minimize Young’s watch-ability and his wow-factor. He’ll need to remodel his game because there are so few point guards who are allowed to express so much creativity on every possession. Aside from Curry, Westbrook, Harden and Irving, who is allowed to play as freely as Young is at Oklahoma?
As ironic as it is to emulate a clearly inferior prospect, Brunson is showcasing how Young will be able to impact the game at the next level, where the Patrick Beverley’s and the Rick Carlisle’s will force him to change.