When Jay Wright made the decision to retire at the end of last season, he left Villanova having turned the school into a powerhouse. From 2001 to 2022, Coach Wright led the Wildcats to six Big East titles, four Final Fours and two National Championships.
While Wright is a legend at the NCAA level, his impact extends to the pro ranks. Nine players from Villanova are currently on NBA rosters, while a host of others have come and gone through the league. Aside from six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, there likely isn’t a bigger name on the list of current players than Jalen Brunson, the prize of the New York Knicks’ offseason.
Brunson, of course, was on both of Wright’s title teams — a highly-recruited freshman for the first, the team’s leading scorer as a junior for the second. The Knicks’ $104-million man was in Philadelphia last week, playing in an arena he was quite familiar with from his Villanova days. The Wildcats have their own arena on campus, but also play a few games every season at the Philadelphia 76ers’ arena, the Wells Fargo Center.
“It’s always special [being back]. Love seeing those banners in the corner,” Brunson said postgame last Friday. “It’s a very special building and always will be.”
Of course, Brunson wasn’t the only former ‘Nova player suiting up for New York. Ryan Arcidiacono, a fellow member of the 2016 Wildcats, was also in town. The rare opportunity to play with his college teammate at the NBA level isn’t lost on Arcidiacono.
“Considering all the Villanova accomplishments together and then what he’s accomplished since, it’s always special,” Arcidiacono told SB Nation. “Be teammates at Villanova and now in the NBA is not something that everyone gets to experience and enjoy.”
The pair took in Game 4 of the World Series together the night before just across the street as the Philadelphia Phillies lost to the Houston Astros. After an 11-year playoff drought, the Phillies made it to the Fall Classic. The expectations were high for Philly’s baseball team as they spent big money to finally get over the hump to make the postseason.
Now, Brunson becomes the face of a franchise that hasn’t won a championship since 1973, hasn’t advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals since 2000, hasn’t won a playoff series since 2013, and has made the playoffs just once in the last nine years.
No pressure there.
The good news for Knicks fans is that from a pedigree and temperament standpoint, Brunson is likely the perfect man for the job. His father Rick was a star at Temple University and went on to have a nine-year NBA career, including two seasons in New York.
But more importantly, there’s just a calmness and quiet confidence about Jalen that you can sense being around him.
“Just seeing [Brunson’s] day to day, the leadership ability,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I knew that he always cared about his teammates and his team, that was always at the forefront from having watched him. But when you see the approach each and every day, when you see the accountability.
“He’s team-first, willing to sacrifice, do whatever is best for the team. And the best leadership that you could have is what you do each and every day. So, he never gets too high, he never gets too low. I think his confidence is borne out of his preparation, what he puts into each and every day.”
Even after a decorated NCAA career, where he was arguably the best player in college basketball as a junior, Brunson wasn’t viewed as a can’t-miss prospect. Not only did Brunson slip all the way to the second round (33rd overall), three of his Wildcats teammates (Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman) went ahead of him in the first round. Brunson got the last laugh, putting together four strong seasons with the Mavericks.
His time in Dallas culminated in an outstanding playoff run. With Luka Doncic missing the first four games of the Mavericks’ first-round series vs. the Jazz, Brunson was spectacular, averaging 29.8 points a game on 58.7 true shooting in that span. He was a huge part of Dallas’ run to the Western Conference Finals, with his pending free agency being a hot topic in NBA circles.
It was a taste of what the Knicks are hoping to see over the course of the next four years.
“Leadership. Toughness. Big shot maker. Winner. Other than that …,” Sixers head coach and former Knick Doc Rivers said with a laugh. “No, I really think all those things is what he’s good at. You know, I don’t think you look at him and say the one thing that stands out, other than all these intangibles that make him a really good player.”
Arcidiacono was the unquestioned leader of that 2016 National Championship team. He was a senior while Brunson was a freshman.
But Brunson was no ordinary freshman. He was the highest-ranked player Wright was able to get to commit to Villanova and arguably his biggest recruit since Lowry all the way back in 2003. While the top coaches around college basketball were hunting for one-and-done talents, Wright always looked for players that played a certain brand of basketball.
Brunson fit that mold — and it’s likely what’s helped him become the player he is at the highest level of the sport.
“He’s always been a crazy hard worker and just a great dude off the court,” Arcidiacono said. “On the court, you see the same abilities just he’s gotten so much better from college, which you don’t see on a day-to-day basis, but now I do get to see it. He’s a great leader on the court, off the court, and great team chemistry builder. And he gets what he deserves for all the hard work that he’s put in.”
When asked what it’s meant to have Arcidiacono as his teammate again, the understated Brunson gave a simple answer that pretty much sums up what he’s all about.
“It means a lot,” Brunson said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
There will be nights when Brunson doesn’t play well. There were will be availabilities where the New York media grills him during a rough stretch. Fans might question the team’s decision to build their offseason around signing Brunson while whiffing on acquiring Donovan Mitchell.
But don’t expect Brunson to let that affect how he approaches the game or how he treats his teammates. He knew he wasn’t going to be handed anything when he committed to Villanova or when he was drafted in the second round. He knows nobody will hand him anything in a city like New York.
But just like those banners that hang in the Wells Fargo Center, Brunson isn’t going anywhere any time soon.