Jalen Brunson Quietly Powering Mavs' Success

It’s impossible to explain Dallas's success without recognizing the play of Brunson.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Just when it looked like the Mavericks’ spring surge was in full swing with a five-game winning streak, the momentum came to a halt Wednesday, as Dallas suffered a setback against the lowly Rockets.

Still, the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater. By and large, the Mavs have looked fantastic over the past two months, with much of it due to the incredible play of their burgeoning point guard. But before you get carried away: No, we aren’t talking about back-end MVP candidate Luka Dončić, who had perhaps his worst game of the year Wednesday. This is an ode to Jalen Brunson, Dončić’s 6-foot-1 backup.

A handful of things would explain Dallas’ turnaround after a slow start, which was held back by a rash of COVID absences. The team’s offense again resembles last year’s record-breaking attack. Even the team’s defense, which was below average last season, has been impressive lately, ranking eighth-best since Feb. 8. On Monday, the Mavs took down mighty Utah, which gave them their 18th win over that span, one in which they’ve posted the league’s fifth-best mark. But it’s impossible to explain the club’s success without recognizing Brunson—particularly as of late, as he’s helped lift the reserves to new, Damn, these guys are playing like starters heights in recent months.

Brunson was already enjoying a career year through early February, very nearly shooting 50-40-90 (52.2%, 41.5% and 89.4% through Feb. 7, to be exact) to average 11.6 points and 3.4 assists. Yet in that span, the Mavs were scoring just 108.1 points per 100 possessions—and getting outscored by 3.2 points in those stints—with Brunson on the court.

In the last two months, though, things have shifted. Dallas is draining 116.8 points per 100 possessions, demolishing foes by 11.3 points with Brunson—up from a mere plus-1.4 without the secondary southpaw.

Brunson, who last year logged 8.2 points on 46.6% shooting, is playing the best ball of his life, averaging 17.4 points and 4.0 assists on 61% shooting in his last seven games; including 47.6% from beyond the arc.

During the fourth period of that Monday victory over the red-hot Jazz, Mavericks broadcaster Derek Harper said Brunson is “looking like the best guard on the floor tonight,” a hell of a statement to make in a game that three All-Star guards—Dončić, Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell—were playing in.

The 24-year-old lefty has an unusually crafty, Nash-like slitheriness to his game when he maneuvers toward the paint, one that confuses defenders as he twists and contorts his relatively small frame near the rim. Even when he pulls up early and lets his man fly past him, Brunson has a nice, under-control fadeaway he can use to comfortably get shots off, even though he’s always at a clear height disadvantage.

It’s almost scary to look at how much Brunson has excelled despite being so undersized. Quite frankly, it hasn’t helped defenses stop him in the paint this season. Not that they’ve been able to stop him elsewhere, either. He’s shot 54.7% from midrange (35 for 64), and 51.3% (20 for 39) from the three-point corners.

But you have to do a double take—maybe even a triple take—to realize that no guard in the NBA has been more accurate from the restricted area this season than Brunson, at 73.6%. Even when taking a broader look—all players who drive and shoot at the basket at least four times per game—just one player, reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, has a better field-goal percentage on such plays. (Just barely.) At 62.5%, the 6-1 Brunson finishes drives more efficiently than 6-8 freight train LeBron James.

He’s on pace to become the first player in 44 years to stand 6' 1" or shorter and shoot 60% from two-point range, per Stathead. But at times the third-year guard, who shoots just nine times per game, leaves you wishing he’d be just a bit more selfish. Take the loss in Houston, for example, where Dončić bit off more than he could chew, shooting 9 of 26 for 23 points with as many turnovers (five) as assists. Brunson, a heady player who never forces anything, finished 5 for 7 for 14 points, three assists and no turnovers.

“He’s made improvements in all areas. His body is stronger and more durable. He’s constantly improving,” says Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “He has a knack for both playmaking and scoring. His defense is consistent; he’s a very reliable team defender. Better than people give him credit for. This is Year Three, and I just see him continuing to get better and better with each year.”

If ever there was a coach who’s not shy about utilizing a couple of playmakers simultaneously, it’s Carlisle, who made hay with undersized scoring dynamo J.J. Barea, and thrived with Devin Harris before that. “Dallas is Backup Point Guard U,” analyst Nekias Duncan said during his podcast, The Dunker Spot.

Much like with Barea and Harris, it’s easy to imagine Brunson finishing big games with starters down the stretch; particularly if the Mavs go small—Kristaps Porzingis is a Mario Mystery Box from health standpoint—or if one of Josh Richardson or streaky Tim Hardaway, Jr. experiences a Siberian cold spell.

That option didn’t exist last year. Dallas, which found itself in a knock-down, drag-out first-round bubble series with the Clippers, was without Brunson as he recovered from a procedure on his right shoulder.

As well as he’s playing, no one will mistake Brunson—a player whose career so far most closely mirrors Cory Joseph and B.J. Armstrong, according to FiveThirtyEight’s player-projection model—for being the Mavericks’ superstar. Dončić, still just 22 years old, is clearly that guy. But maybe there’s something to the fact that Brunson’s comps also set the table alongside transcendent stars on the way to NBA titles.

It’s obviously early still in this Dallas club’s timeline. But having Brunson healthy and anywhere near this level for a stretch run gives an already scary Mavs’ offense even more possibilities than it enjoyed before.

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