Photo courtesy of USA Today.
By David Cordova
The 2017-18 season has been the year of the Wildcats. Villanova, that is. So far, this year’s team is 28-4 overall, second place in the Big East with a 12-1 record in conference play, with a No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
One of the reasons for that performance is none other than Jalen Brunson. The 6-foot-3 junior is one of the best players in the country and has the ability to control a team efficiently and makes his fellow teammates better.
“I think what’s most important, for my motivation, is seeing how hard my dad worked to be in the NBA, just to be able to stay on a roster. Just seeing that at such a young age, knowing that I love basketball, made me want to work even harder to be better than him, and be the best player I can be.” says Brunson.
His father is Rick Brunson, an NBA verteran, who played for seven teams in nine seasons and is presently an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. When asked what guidance the elder Brunson gave him in regards to basketball, the younger Brunson replied, “I think, the most important lesson I learned from him is you’ve got to treat basketball like you treat everything else. If you’re going to work hard in basketball, you have to work hard in school, you’ve got to be a good citizen, you’ve got to be the best person you can be. So, I think all of the basketball lessons I’ve been learning, it definitely helps me in life.”
Brunson was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, but due to his father’s career as a player and coach, the family moved to different places about seven times, before settling in Lincolnshire, Illinois, a suburb that is 40 minutes away from Chicago, in 2010.
In high school, Brunson wound up going to the local high school, Stevenson High, where he played on the varsity for four years, and compiled a record of 104-21, with an IHSA state championship in his senior season. Amongst his honors were: First Team Parade All-American, USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, Illinois Mr. Basketball and also an invite to the McDonald’s All-American Game, the most prestigious high school basketball event out there, and lastly, was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year Award winner as a junior and a senior.
When looking back at his high school days in Illinois, Brunson had some good memories of it. “Yeah, basketball out there [in Illinois], it’s amazing, I went to two state Final Fours, played against Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, so it was stacked with talent. There was so many great players in that area, the competition was outrageous, so part of that helped me prepare for this level.”
Brunson ended up being rated the No. 16 player in the country in the high school class of 2015 by ESPN and also the second-ranked point guard in the nation. He had plenty of college offers from many high-major colleges. But in September 2014, he picked Villanova, a school that has a rich tradition of outstanding guards.
“I just wanted to come back home. I was born in South Jersey, I lived in New Jersey for a long time. My family lives there now. So I think, coming back home and being close to the East Coast, and knowing the family atmosphere that Villanova had in store really helped me in my decision,” says Brunson on why he committed to the Wildcats.
Also, another reason for his decision was a chance on being coached by longtime Villanova head coach, Jay Wright. “Playing for Coach Wright, it’s amazing. Coach is great, Coach is one of a kind, he really pushes players to be the best they can be. He’s one of those guys that wants the best for you on and off the court.”
As a freshman, Brunson averaged 9.6 points and 2.5 assists in 40 games in the 2015-16 and was a part of a Wildcats team that went 35-5 and won the NCAA national championship. When asked what it was like being a part of that special team, he replied, “That was great, it was a great feeling, knowing how hard it was and, it’s so many thoughts when it comes to thinking about that. I’m just thankful for the teammates that I had, to make that even possible.”
Also, that year, he made the Big East’s All-Freshman Team. Then as a sophomore, he doubled his average to 14.7 points and 4.1 assists as he led the Wildcats to a 32-4 record, a Big East championship and a second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Also, he was named the Big East’s First Team.
Fast-forward to the present day, in which Brunson is averaging 19.1 points, 4.8 assists and three rebounds per game for the Wildcats, who are 29-4 on the season, and ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. For his efforts, he has been named the Sporting News Player of the Year, a First Team All-Big East selection once again, and was also named Big East Scholar of the Year and Player of the Year.
When asked about how he feels about his team’s success this season, he replied, “I think it’s great being able to be ranked No. 1, but I think our team knows that every time we step on the court, we want to get better. That is our goal, every day, no matter if we were No. 1 or whether we were the lowest ranking we’ve been all year, it doesn’t matter. We want to be the best that we can be. We just kept working hard and we pushed ourselves to be the best.”
And on the subject of his awards: “It’s great, it’s great. I’m just thankful that I’m being honored with these awards, and I thank the Big East coaches that voted for me, thank you to all of the National Player of the Year outlets who named all of those awards. It’s really humbling to be honored. But I just can’t focus on that, I’ve got to focus on the rest of the season, I’ve got to focus on one game at a time. So that’s my only focus right now.”
It’s already been established that Brunson is a proven winner, with a national championship and a 96-13 record as a member of the Wildcats and over 1,500 points in his career. With his talent, there is no doubt that he will eventually be a pro very soon. But for now, his only goal is to keep the Wildcats’ season going and also to be better every time he goes out on the court.
“For the rest of the year, we [Villanova] want to be, trying to be the best we can be. We don’t necessarily want to use the result of winning a championship or not as a way to find out how we were as a team. We just want to keep getting better and see where it takes us from there. For the future of me, I just need to focus on this right now, and then once this season is over, we’ll talk about the future, but as of right now, I’m locked into this.”
Highlights of Jalen Brunson:
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