Jalen Brunson is giving the Knicks everything they could have hoped for at the point guard position, helping to drive their surprising early success.
When the New York Knicks finagled point guard Jalen Brunson from the Dallas Mavericks by dangling a four-year, $104 million contract in front of him, the decision was met with a great deal of confusion.
Why in the world do you pay Jalen Brunson this much? This is a classic Knicks’ overpay.
But if the early returns are an accurate foreshadowing of what’s to come, Brunson and the Knicks will have the haters eating their words by the season’s end.
The Knicks are enjoyable again, and it’s because of Brunson. He’s breathed life into their offense, and in the process, likely vaulted them to playoff contender status.
Jalen Brunson is pushing the pace
The Knicks have been obnoxiously slow over the last two seasons (ranking in the bottom two in pace in both years). And if history has taught us anything, that can be a problem because the best shots are typically available early in the shot clock (coincidentally, New York was bottom-ten in offense both years as well).
Under Brunson, the team is speeding things up, now operating at the 15th-fastest pace in the association. To help make this change, they have regularly featured him and teammate RJ Barrett in an early-offensive series known as the Pistol — a sequence popularized by the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Phoenix Suns (aka the gold standard for playing with pace).
One variation they have run with the new duo is called ‘21 Keep.’ As the diagram below illustrates, this play includes a hit-ahead pass from Brunson, followed by a fake dribble handoff from Barrett, and punctuated with a quarterback keeper to the rim via a Mitchell Robinson ball-screen.
Visual Diagram Provided by Luceo Sports
There are a lot more layers to the Pistol, some that require more passing/scoring from Brunson, but all of them are accessible because of the sense of urgency he injects into the offense.
The pick and roll is the most important offensive play type in basketball. Period. Last year, 13 of the 16 teams that made the playoffs ranked in the top half of the league in pick-and-roll ball handling (per NBA.com).
Do you know who didn’t rank in the top half of the league? The 19th-ranked New York Knicks; who were 22nd in overall offensive rating and, of course, missed out on the playoffs altogether.
That trend likely will not continue this season, or at least it hasn’t so far. As it stands, the once-lowly Knicks are now first in pick-and-roll ball handler efficiency, and that’s largely thanks to Brunson (and the return of Derrick Rose).
Brunson’s combination of shooting, passing, and driving, and his mastery of the snake dribble, make him one of the most dynamic pick-and-roll skippers. Through four games, he’s in the 94th percentile in scoring efficiency as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll ball, and that’s no fluke considering he was in the 90th percentile or higher the last two years.
It’s early, but he’s already acclimated himself with his new co-star, Julius Randle, combining his skills with the big man’s power and finishing to form a dynamic two-man combination:
Certified advantage creator
When the Knicks shocked the world and made a playoff run in 2020-21, they were quickly dispatched in five games by the Atlanta Hawks. And while reasons for their defeat were abundant, chief among them was a lack of consistent advantage creation.
The Hawks could overload the ball any time it was in Randle’s possession because they weren’t intimidated by the prospect of anyone else on that roster trying to force them into rotation. As we alluded to last week, that same schematic initiative permeated into the 2021-22 season, and the overburdened Randle struggled because of it.
Brunson’s presence remedies a lot of those issues, as the skills we outlined above make him adept at bringing a second or third defender into the action and sending the defense into a tailspin. And it shows when you look at Randle’s efficiency. Since Brunson’s arrival, his true shooting percentage has jumped nearly four percentage points from last season’s average.
We alluded to the mid-2000s Suns earlier. Well, like the other point guard the Mavericks let walk in free agency, Steve Nash, Brunson is great at circling around the paint and maintaining his dribble (a technique known as ‘Nash-ing’). This perpetual dribble probe puts an intense strain on defenses because players are trained to toggle their vision between their man and the ball.
So, if the ball is in a high-value area like the paint for too long, an ancillary defender might fixate their gaze on this potential threat and lose sight of their own assignment, leading to easy scoring chances for the offense.
How far can Jalen Brunson take the New York Knicks?
Under defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, the Knicks have always been stout on that side of the ball. Brunson’s communication, court awareness, and defensive playmaking make him an amicable fit there, so success in that category should continue.
On offense, Brunson has brought new life to this struggling bunch for all the reasons we’ve already mentioned. Moving forward, this team has a chance to be incredibly balanced on both ends of the court, which bodes well for their playoff chances.
However, questions still exist within this roster. None of their three wins this year have come against playoff teams. The shooting/spacing situation is a bit murky. And neither of their primary centers (Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein) has demonstrated an aptitude for participating in a wide array of ball-screen coverages.
Still, none of those questions directly pertain to Brunson, which is a huge win for the team and a strong indicator that he was well worth the deal he received last July.