Hung up on the wall of his college dorm room was a long list of goals.
They were placed there during Jalen Brunson‘s first week of his junior year at Villanova and remained until he moved out. Whether he was awake before sunrise to train or up late studying for an exam, the list stared at him. There were tiring, tough days—a lot of them—but Brunson would not allow himself to lose sight of those goals. Literally.
Big East Player of the Year. Big East champions. Consensus National Player of the Year. NCAA champions. One by one, Brunson checked them off the list. He graduated school early, as he had set out to do, taking classes throughout the summer as he also prepared for the NBA.
“I knew that when I write my goals down, I’d be more likely to achieve them,” Brunson says. The ritual creates a sense of accountability and offers daily motivation. At the advice of his parents, Rick and Sandra, Jalen has been making these lists since he began high school; and what he’s managed to accomplish, on and off the court, from then is truly remarkable.
Now the 22-year-old is wrapping up his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks. It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-March and he’s tuned in to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Though it feels like forever ago, it’s been less than 12 months since Brunson was on the stage himself. He remembers the crazy environments and how hard it was to block out all the noise and distractions. Those experiences helped groom him for where he’s at now.
Dallas took Brunson with the 33rd pick in the 2018 draft, and head coach Rick Carlisle recognized immediately that the organization had gotten a steal.
“I remember us having a conversation and he knew: We got a first round pick in the second round,” explains Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “He said that to me. He said, This kid is going to be a great pro. He knew it.”
Brunson understood that his value wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in the draft. He had thoughtful conversations with coach Wright about it and was never discouraged by where he ultimately got selected.
“The draft is about potential, size, athleticism—that’s not him,” says Wright. “But your career is going to be about your skill level, your professionalism, your work ethic, your ability to be a winner and a leader, and he was elite in that area. So we knew—You are going to be successful. You are going to have a long career. It’s just not going to show in the draft.“
On the floor has been a different story.
In his first season, Brunson has averaged 9.3 points and 3.1 assists per contest, shooting 47 percent from the field (2nd among rookie guards) and 35 percent from three. He’s been in the starting lineup 37 times, upping his scoring mark to 13.0 points in those outings. He can spot up beyond the arc, waiting for kick-outs from teammate Luka Doncic, and knock down jumpers off-the-dribble. Despite standing just 6-3, Brunson has finished 70 percent of his attempts at the rim as well, using his strength and an array of savvy moves to create open looks. There’s a poise and calm to his game that’s rare to find in rookies. For a point guard, he rarely turns the ball over (averaging merely 1.2 per game) and can effectively control the tempo.
“I approach each game the same,” he says. “Just go out there and be a killer. Play as hard as I can and do what the team needs.”
He repeats himself to emphasize that last part: Play as hard as I can and do what the team needs.
“Sheer will and competitiveness,” says Wright, when asked what Brunson brings to the table. “He would somedays just will our team to have a good practice. Some games just will our team to a win. It might be a steal and a breakaway layup. It might be a charge. It might be a dive for a loose ball. It might be hitting a three. It might be posting up and getting an and-one. It would be whatever it would take to break the will of the opponent and to inspire the will of our team. Whatever it would take.”
And yet, what seems to separate Brunson more than anything else is his maturity and disciplined approach. According to Wright, he was “as close to perfect as you can be” as a student-athlete at Villanova—always getting the right amount of rest, eating the right foods, training before and after practice, watching extra film, staying on top of his studies. It’s one thing to write down your goals. It’s another to chase them—all of them—unrelentingly.
The summer before his junior year, Brunson passed up on invitations to several camps that would’ve provided exposure to NBA scouts, instead concentrating on his plan to graduate and on being the captain of the Wildcats. He never missed a team or individual workout and was very in-tune with how the guys were feeling and what needed to be addressed at certain moments.
“I would joke that he was the most mature person in our program, including me and our staff. But… it’s not really a joke,” says Wright.
“He would initiate more meetings with me at the right time than I would with him. There’d be times I thought there was an issue or I just had a question about what the team thought and I would meet with him, but more times he would come to me and I would say, Hey, you know what, I’m glad you came up here because you and I should talk about this. He would initiate it. His maturity and emotional intelligence was incredible.”
Villanova’s philosophy is that complete growth (mental, emotional, social, academic) on the college level between the ages of 18-21 will actually make one a better basketball player. They would never hold an individual back from jumping to the NBA, but that’s their overall position. Brunson didn’t have to discuss this philosophy when he was being recruited or when he arrived on campus—he came in with it already, even though his prior accolades (USAB Male Athlete of the Year, MVP of the FIBA U19 World Cup, Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, McDonald’s All-American) suggested he could be a one-and-done. He was going to get his degree. End of story.
“Staying those three years helped me experience a lot of things,” Brunson says. “I matured. I got to learn different roles of basketball.
“I know what it’s like to first be a role player on a winning team and also be the leader on a winning team. I got to experience the best of both worlds.”
Brunson scored 9.6 points per game during his freshman campaign, when NOVA went on to win the NCAA title on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater. Two years later, he guided the school to the top once again—this time dropping a team-high 18.9 points.
As he transitioned to the pros shortly after, his father, Rick, who played in the NBA from 1997-2006, repeatedly preached the same message. Embrace the experience. Stay ready.
“You can play 0 minutes one night and you can play 30-40 minutes the next. You just never know,” Jalen says. “It sounds simple but staying mentally and physically ready is something that’s hard to do.”
The Mavs traded starting PG Dennis Smith Jr back at the deadline, paving the way for Brunson to receive more minutes. And of course, he was ready.
“He’s had a lot of different roles this year—everything from being a stay-ready, depth bench guy to being in the primary rotation off the bench and then he started a lot of games too,” said Rick Carlisle in late-February, just before Brunson put up 22 points and 5 assists against the Nuggets. “One of the great things about him is, he’s ready for anything. He’ll always be ready. He’s very professional for a guy that’s just a first-year player.”
Jalen has been chasing a new set of goals, stored on his phone so he can always refer back to them, even when the Mavericks are on the road. He doesn’t like to share the contents (“Those goals are my own.”), but will admit that he “likes where [he’s] at.”
“I’m just trying to prove that I belong,” he later says. “That’s all I care about.”
You can check that off the list.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos via Getty.