Jalen Brunson’s elite status is impossible to deny

CHICAGO — The narrative has shifted on Jalen Brunson. He’s gone from Robin to Batman. Watson to Sherlock.

Whereas previously the national discussions were about stuff Brunson couldn’t do based on his size — or about the player the Knicks should sign to push the point guard lower on the totem pole — it’s becoming more accepted to embrace Brunson as the guy.

“This is a top-10 to -12 player in the NBA this season. I think there is legitimate buzz about him creeping in the top five of the MVP voting. He’s been that good this year. He was phenomenal last year. He’s been even better this year,” JJ Redick said on his podcast, “The Old Man And the Three.”

Jalen Brunson is making it hard to underrate him with his star-turn season. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“He has — along with [coach Tom Thibodeau] and that group, sans [Julius] Randle — they have figured out a counter for every coverage. And it’s been phenomenal to watch. I want to state clearly: If you think Jalen Brunson is a top-30 player, you are vastly underestimating him. He’s closer to that 10 to 15. And you could argue this season, probably a little bit higher.”

Redick’s sentiment was backed up the latest ESPN straw poll, which had Brunson sixth on the MVP voting behind Nikola Jokic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum.

The latest evidence of his superstardom was Sunday in Milwaukee, when Brunson dropped 43 points and had Doc Rivers flabbergasted.

“[We tried] everything,” Rivers said. “We trapped him. We were in the drop a lot. I thought that hurt. … We watched him, and he has seen every coverage. And you can see that. Helluva player. And his conditioning level is off the charts.”

Dame Lillard watched his opponent pick the Bucks apart.

In Milwaukee’s scheme, the screener’s defender steps back closer to the paint — which allowed Brunson more space off picks to operate.

Jalen Brunson’s footwork, conditioning and IQ have helped him reached stardom. Robert Sabo for NY Post

And he exploited it.

“First of all, he’s one of the best players in the league,” Lillard said. “He’s a scorer. And as somebody who has been in a situation of having the ball 95 percent of the time, 90 percent of the time, there are certain matchups that I can just think of where I just knew what coverage they were going to be in.

“And we play a drop coverage. And he’s getting those screen sets and he’s coming downhill. He plays in the midrange with floaters and pull-up jumpers and stuff like that. I think the way he played coming into these games and knowing the coverages he’s going to see. I think that’s kind of the reason why.”

Brunson, who entered Tuesday fourth in the NBA in scoring at 28.2 points per game, has been doing it unconventionally — at least by NBA star standards.

He’s the shortest player to average this many points since Isaiah Thomas with the Celtics in 2017.

He’s also dominating games with the type of angles and footwork that allow a 6-foot-1 guard — who can barely dunk — to average 11.5 point in the paint before Tuesday.

Brunson can barely dunk, but other facets of his game make it less of a problem. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

His roommate from college, Donte DiVincenzo, can predict every move but still doesn’t know how to stop it.

“I can tell you what he’s going to do every single time he gets into the paint, what kind of counters he’s going to do. The defense knows as well. But he’s so good at fakes and so good at his footwork, that you have to respect every single move that he has,” DiVincenzo said. “And that’s how he gets his ability to get to the free throw line, to get floaters, to get reads where I get open threes in the corner, because they’re so worried about him in the paint.”

The underrated aspect of Brunson’s game is his strength and conditioning, which Rivers recognized.

Even longtime friend and teammate Donte DiVincenzo can’t figure out how to stop Brunson. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Brunson entered the Bulls game second in the NBA in distance traveled this season on offense (114 miles, behind only Mikal Bridges), and does most of that with the ball.

Defensively, Brunson struggles to stay in front of his man but isn’t afraid to draw a charge — he was second in the NBA with 31 drawn before Tuesday.

The physicality, IQ and general awareness has carried Brunson through about five perceived ceilings since he joined the Knicks.

“It’s incredible. I’m proud of him,” DiVincenzo said. “But it’s also well-deserved. He puts in the work. You see guys get their name mentioned with other great players in the league, it’s a credit to him, but it’s also what type of person he is. It means a little bit more for everybody around him.”


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