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The jaw-dropping rise of Jalen Brunson, the NBA superstar no one saw coming

The last gasp of superstar free agency as we know it came in 2019 — the seismic summer of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving bringing a star-crossed two-man game to Brooklyn, Kawhi Leonard taking Paul George with him back to Cali, and Jimmy Butler heeding the clarion call to become the next avatar of #HeatCulture. Since then, the NBA landscape has shifted more toward marquee talent moving via trade: Chris Paul to Phoenix (and later Golden State), James Harden to Brooklyn (and later Philadelphia, and, later still, L.A.), Rudy Gobert to Minnesota, Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland, Kyrie Irving to Dallas, Kevin Durant to Phoenix, Damian Lillard to Milwaukee.

With more and more top guys changing sides via monster swaps, the biggest names switching teams on the unrestricted market have belonged to guys like Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Fred VanVleet. Fine players, all … but a far cry from the days of Shaquille O’Neal going to Hollywood in 1996, Steve Nash creating Seven Seconds or Less in 2004, LeBron James shaking the league every four years like the Olympics, or KD effectively breaking the league in 2016. As the ever-churning transactional cycle gets closer to the offseason, you’ll likely hear the same refrain: True stars just don’t change teams in free agency anymore.

A couple of years ago, though, one did. We just didn’t know it yet.

Whatever reservations you might have had about Leon Rose and Co. handing the Dallas Mavericks’ second-in-command $104 million — and I won’t lie: I had some — Jalen Brunson has neatly, convincingly and overwhelmingly answered them. After a breakout turn in his first season at Madison Square Garden, during which he led the Knicks to their first top-10 finish in offensive efficiency and their first playoff series win in a smooth decade, the point guard has turned in an even more impressive encore in Year 2, leading the charge for what’s been the NBA’s hottest team … and earning the first All-Star selection of his career on Thursday.

Brunson has New York humming, on a league-best nine-game winning streak and boasting a 15-2 mark since Jan. 1 — their first game with OG Anunoby, whom Knicks brass imported from the Raptors in exchange for homegrown prospects RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley. The taciturn newcomer has proven a perfect fit in New York, averaging nearly 16 points per game on 52/39/84 shooting splits alongside more than six combined steals, blocks and deflections a night while holding some of the NBA’s most dangerous offensive players to just 42.3% shooting, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Anunoby has received a ton of credit for the Knicks’ recent surge up the standings and defensive rankings, all of it richly deserved. But New York pasted the Hornets and Jazz this week without Anunoby or Julius Randle — a worthy All-Star reserve selection in his own right, now on the shelf with a dislocated right shoulder — thanks in large part to Brunson, who kept the winning streak and good vibes going by scoring or assisting on 100 of the Knicks’ 231 points in the victories and turning the ball over just twice in 72 minutes across the back-to-back set. And on Thursday, he rallied the Knicks past the Pacers with 40 points in a 109-105 win.

(Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports illustration)

That sort of production has become par for the course for Brunson, who is the steadiest pair of hands the Knicks have had on the ball in decades — with apologies to early-days Stephon Marbury, the fortnight-long fever dream of Linsanity and wizened kings Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni — and who has become one of the NBA’s best point guards, full stop.

Brunson was already playing great before the big year-end shake-up. But the way the trade reorganized the Knicks’ offensive pecking order — sending out two players who functioned best with the ball in their hands in Barrett (a 27.2% usage rate in New York, 44.2 touches per game) and Quickley (24.1% usage rate, 41.4 touches per game) and bringing back one better suited to playing off the ball in Anunoby (just a 16.4% usage rate and 40.8 touches per game as a Knick) — opened the door to the 27-year-old absorbing an even larger share of the playmaking burden. He’s done it brilliantly, averaging 28.9 points and 7.7 assists per game on pristine .616 true shooting (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) in January. That’s a level of combined scoring, facilitation and shooting efficiency that we’ve only seen seven players manage over the course of a full season: Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Trae Young, Luka Dončić, Damian Lillard and James Harden.

Now, doing that for a month is a lot different than doing it for a full season. But if seeing Brunson’s name in that kind of context registers as a shock, it’s worth noting just how much the Knicks offense revolves around his shot creation. That’s true of the shots he generates for himself, as evidenced by the obscene 59% he shot in January on his bread-and-butter floater and the 39.7% clip at which he’s drilling pull-up 3-pointers this season (a shot he didn’t hit consistently in Dallas, but that he’s now splashing at a top-five clip among high-volume launchers). Just as importantly, though, it’s true of the ones he creates for the teammates who virtually all shoot better when Brunson’s around to set the table.

In an era when the pace of play is as fast as it’s been in 30-plus years — a major contributing factor to all those wild individual scoring performances — New York ranks 27th among 30 NBA teams in possessions per 48 minutes and dead last in average time to shot after a defensive rebound, according to Mike Beuoy’s tracking at Inpredictable. This is the style that Tom Thibodeau wants to play on offense — methodical, probing — and it works for these Knicks primarily because of Brunson’s ability to control possessions, chisel his way through layers of defenders, make the right read and create a great look.

Over the last month, only six players have averaged more touches per game than Brunson, according to Second Spectrum tracking: Nikola Jokić, Domantas Sabonis, Dončić, Tyrese Maxey, Mitchell and Young. Nobody has a higher average time of possession than Brunson in that span; nobody’s averaging more dribbles per touch or seconds per touch. But despite cranking up his workload and elevating his assist rate — he notched the helper on 36.1% of New York’s offensive trips in January, up from 27.9% before the OG deal — Brunson also managed to further slash his already minuscule turnover rate all the way down to 8.1%, which would be a top-five mark among high-usage players for the full season.

Brunson kills defenses softly. He weaponizes patience and craft, letting his live dribble linger as he cycles through a fully equipped inventory of feints, jabs and stutters to wrong-foot defenders and compromise coverages. Once he’s settled on his angle of approach, his unique physicality — the burst to gain the edge off the bounce; the strength to keep trailing defenders on his hip, get low and shield the ball from would-be swipers — allows him to create high-value and comparatively lower-risk scoring chances, whether serving it up to roll men and cutters slicing to the cup …

… or drawing enough defensive attention to open up kickout passes to waiting shooters:

And while the intentionally measured Knicks don’t look to run all that much, they do so more frequently and more efficiently with Brunson on the floor, always with his eyes up the court looking for hit-ahead feeds:

Combine that kind of playmaking vision and shotmaking touch with a relentless north-south game — only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has driven to the basket more this season than Brunson, who’s tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo for sixth in points scored per game off drives — and a mix of savvy and strength that can produce both the fifth-most fouls drawn in the NBA and the fifth-most and-1s converted, and you’ve got an incredibly valuable player. (Not least of which because he’s an absolute tank who ranks eighth in the NBA in total minutes.)

Brunson is the heartbeat of a Knicks offense that has averaged a scorching 122.6 points per 100 possessions since the calendar flipped to 2024, according to Cleaning the Glass, and is now tied for sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency for the full season. (According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Knicks haven’t finished two straight seasons with a top-10 offense since the league began collecting play-by-play data in 1996-97; since Brunson’s arrival, they’re now flirting with consecutive top-five finishes.) He sits in the top 15 in the NBA in advanced metrics like estimated plus-minus, value over replacement player and win shares, and in or around the top 20 in a bunch of other ones.

He is not the sole reason that New York enters Thursday in third place in the East, just a game behind second-place Milwaukee, with the NBA’s fifth-best net rating, as one of only five teams in the league to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball. (The others: The Celtics, Clippers, Thunder and 76ers — four of the seven betting favorites to win the title.) He’s not the sole reason that’s projection model gives the Knicks, who haven’t advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 2000, a 6.2% chance of winning the championship. He’s the biggest one, though.

The Knicks have plenty to figure out before they reach that point, of course: how to navigate the as-yet-undetermined length of Randle’s absence; how aggressively to look to add another ball-handler off the bench (Malcolm Brogdon? Bruce Brown? Jordan Clarkson?) to keep the offense afloat when Brunson sits; whether injured starting center Mitchell Robinson really can come back from ankle surgery in time to make an impact in the playoffs; whether even their full-strength squad can survive an Eastern gauntlet that could feature heavyweights like Boston, Philly, the reoriented Bucks and the surging Cavs. That they can reasonably dream of getting there, though, is remarkable enough, and it’s thanks to a 6-foot second-round pick who’s proven to be the rarest of things: a true star who can light the path to a destination this franchise hasn’t reached in a quarter-century … and maybe even to one it hasn’t glimpsed in a hell of a lot longer than that.