It was just the first preseason game, but Jalen Brunson was already in midseason form.
The 6-foot-1 diminutive guard instantly injected stability that has long eluded the New York Knicks backcourt for years and even decades.
Brunson’s imprint was all over the Knicks’ swashbuckling 117-96 win over a young Detroit Pistons team Tuesday night in front of a delirious14,426 Madison Square Garden crowd.
Finally, they have a true point guard.
Brunson darted in and out of the painted area as he surgically dissected the Pistons’ lame-duck defense. His full arsenal was on display, from floater to nifty lefty layup to three-pointer to reverse layup and midrange jumper. He was all over the floor. He shot an efficient 7 of 9 from the field.
When he was not busy scoring, he was setting up his teammates. He issued five assists in just under 20 minutes of play. The Knicks had 27 assists. Last season, they were last in assists, averaging only 21.9 per game. The Knicks played with a faster pace (102.7) after logging in second to the last (96.42) last season. For more context, the Minnesota Timberwolves led the league in pace last season with 101.47.
Brunson instantly changed that as he constantly moved the ball with quick decision-making. Need more proof? His usage rate was only 21.9 percent. RJ Barrett (28.6) and Julius Randle (27.3) remained the top dogs.
“We came out aggressive and Jalen (Brunson) did a good job of starting us off aggressive. We really played together and kept it going the whole night. It’s been fun. Like I said, he started us off really, and just his leadership, talking to us all the time. It’s been huge. Just his pace. It’s really just been everybody and we are all moving the ball and everybody played well.”RJ Barrett to Rebecca Haarlow via MSG Network
New York coach Tom Thibodeau wasn’t surprised at all. He knew Brunson since childhood, from tagging along with his father, Rick, a former Knick who is now part of the coaching staff, and in Chicago, showing up in the Chicago Bulls practice facility as a rising high school star in the area.
“The thing is, having, just knowing [Brunson] the way I do know him and having been around them and I think his father has really coached him hard his whole life so he wants to be coached. He has a great demeanor. I think the way he communicates with his teammates helps our team communicate with each other. But he’s all about the team though. The only thing that matters to him is the team and whether we win or not. And so when you have that type of leadership, and the fact that he comes in and he does all the right things. He doesn’t have to say anything his actions do all the talking.”Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau via MSG Network
Brunson managed the Knicks’ offense well — scoring when the rest of the starting unit was rusty to start the game and organizing when they found their rhythm. He wasn’t a slouch on defense, either. He drew two offensive fouls and contested eight Pistons’ shots, the most among all Knicks starters.
“That’s who he is. I think Jalen can provide whatever you need. So if you need to do more scoring, he can do that. If you need more playmaking, he can do that. If you need him to create pace and create movement, he can do that. We need a quick three, a big shot, he can do that. I love the way he can control and manage the game. And to me, that’s the number one function of a point guard.
So he doesn’t get sped up. He doesn’t get rattled. And I love, like Julius (Randle) in the third quarter was terrific. So I think it’s a calming influence. I think RJ (Barrett) played a really good game. But they played all played off each other really well.”Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau via MSG Network
Randle got off to a tentative start, missing his first three shots. He was 1 of 5 from the floor in the opening half. Then the switch flipped in the third quarter as Randle went off for 10 points on a perfect 4 of 4 shooting including 2 triples. He finished the game with 15 points on an efficient 6 of 10 shooting while adding six rebounds and four assists without a single turnover. He did that in under 19 minutes of play.
When he wasn’t in rhythm, Randle affected the game in other areas. His four screen assist points were second to Mitchell Robinson’s team-high seven. He was also contesting shots (3) and recovering loose balls (2).
Barrett also did not force the action and followed Brunson’s lead despite his ambition to join the All-Star conversation this season. He could get there with the help of Brunson’s calming influence.
Barrett picked up his spots, hit wide-open threes and had easy looks around the rim. The result was an efficient shooting night — 8 of 14 overall and 3 of 5 from behind the arc. The burly wing also collared five rebounds and stuffed the stats sheet with two assists, one steal and one block. He only had one turnover in 23 minutes, the most playing time by any Knicks starter.
“It’s the first preseason game so we’re not gonna get carried away. There are a lot of things we have to clean up and get better at, but it’s a good first step that gives us a baseline of where we are. And there’s a lot of work for us to do going forward.”Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau via MSG Network
Take this preseason game with a grain of salt, but the first impression of the new Knicks’ Big 3 is quite good despite initial trepidation on how they will share the ball.
Brunson’s even-keeled demeanor served him well under the bright lights of the Madison Square Garden like he was born to become a Broadway star.
“It’s an amazing energy in here. The atmosphere is crazy. But I got to continue to be myself. I got to continue working hard. Stay true to myself and just be me.”Jalen Brunson to Jared Greenberg via NBA on TNT
Suffice it to say the early returns of the $104 million investment on Brunson are very promising.
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