Maybe New York Knicks starting point guard Jalen Brunson was left out of the worst All-Star Game in decades for a reason. Who knows, he might end up winning two individual accolades at the end of the season.
Already a strong contender for the Most Improved Player award, Brunson also continues climbing the list of contenders for the newest individual award, the Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year.
Brunson jumped to No. 2 in the latest NBA.com’s Clutch Player Ladder behind Sacramento guard De’Aaron Fox.
The Knicks are 6-2 this month, with half of their wins going down the wire.
Brunson was clutch in two of those Knicks wins.
He had 35 points, including the go-ahead three-pointer, and fed Julius Randle for the three-point dagger during their 126-120 home win against the Utah Jazz last Feb. 11.
Four days before, Brunson willed the Knicks to a 102-98 escape act on the road against the young but gritty Orlando Magic. He had 14 of his 25 points in the final five minutes, including the go-ahead basket, and then found a cutting Jericho Sims for the dunk that gave them a three-point cushion with 39.8 seconds left.
Brunson has now scored a total of 125 points over 133.6 clutch minutes. Only Fox had scored more with 148 points.
Brunson’s 50/40/82.2 shooting splits during those situations have repeatedly bailed the Knicks out. But what’s more impressive is he has only turned the ball over four times during that span.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly talked about Brunson’s calming leadership.
Brunson is even outplaying All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Luka Doncic, who are no. 3 and 4, respectively, in the Clutch Player Ladder.
Talk about stepping out of Doncic’s shadow.
Not even Brunson’s college buddy, Josh Hart, who reunited with him at the trade deadline in New York, saw this coming.
“I knew he would have a long career in the NBA, but I didn’t think it was gonna be how he’s playing now. And he’s someone who should be an All-Star, and he’s playing at an All-Star level,” Hart said after Brunson exploded for 40 points in a win that snapped a long spell against their crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets last Feb. 13.
Thibodeau, who watched Brunson’s rise since childhood, wasn’t as surprised as Hart. The Knicks coach is more surprised Brunson wound up as a second-round pick.
“We saw it every step of his pro career. He did the same thing in college,” Thibodeau said of Brunson, who won two national championships, one with Hart during his freshman year at Villanova.
“Somehow he’s a second round pick. I don’t understand that. But it didn’t derail him at all. It didn’t matter what other people thought he thought,” Thibodeau said. “He was good and he knows he’s good.”
“So he went in and worked his way into the rotation, and eventually worked his way into being a starter. And then, eventually, when he got his opportunity last year in the playoffs, we saw what he was capable of. But the people that know him, I don’t think anyone is surprised by what he’s doing.”
Since the calendar flipped to the new year, Brunson has upped his averages to 29.7 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds. Zooming into February, the 26-yeard-old guard made another leap to 31.9 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.7 rebounds. He’s fifth in scoring this month, just a shade under Doncic’s 32.0-point average.
Suffice it to say, his decision to step out of Doncic’s shadow has unlocked his potential.
On his first season running his own team, he’s on the cusp of leading the Knicks back to the playoffs after last year’s absence.
“We’re excited to kind of get down this last stretch of games,” Brunson said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think we just gotta get back to being focused. We had a great break. Everyone looks rested. Everyone’s good to go, we just gotta get refocused and ready to go. That’s all.”
“We can’t come out these next couple of games lackadaisical. We’ve got to hit the road running.”
The sprint to the finish line begins with a back-to-back schedule against the Washington Wizards on the road on Friday and a Saturday night home game against the visiting New Orleans Pelicans.
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