Jalen Brunson could already be Knicks’ best free-agent signing ever
The Knicks certainly have made their share of colossal personnel mistakes over recent decades, but Jalen Brunson already has to be considered among the most impactful — and potentially the best — free-agent signing in team history.
Just 55 games into a four-year, $104 million deal, Brunson “should be an All-Star,” according to former Villanova teammate and recently acquired Knicks guard Josh Hart. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau added, after the 27-year-old point guard pumped in 40 points in Monday’s win over the Nets, that “it’s pretty obvious to all of us” that Brunson deserves inclusion in the league’s midseason showcase event this weekend in Salt Lake City.
In 21 appearances since returning from a three-game absence due to a hip injury, the red-hot Brunson is averaging an astounding 29.8 points in 39.2 minutes per game, with highly efficient shooting percentages of 48.2 from 3-point range and 51.5 from the floor overall.
“I never really thought to myself what I could and couldn’t do,” Brunson said after Monday’s game, when asked if his recent production has even surprised him. “I just told myself I’ll continue to work and continue to get better when I step on the court.
“With that mindset I have, that’s also a credit to my teammates. They’ve been nothing but amazing and welcoming me with open arms. And the coaching staff, as well. With all that confidence poured into me, I’m just thankful I get to go out there and play as best I can and free as I can, and try to help the team win.”
Brunson not only has helped unlock Julius Randle after the latter endured a rocky season in 2021-22, but the Knicks (32-27) will enter Wednesday’s game in Atlanta a half-game behind the Heat for the sixth playoff position in the East and two back of the gutted Nets for the No. 5 spot. And Brunson has stabilized fully a position that mostly has been a black hole and a desperate need for the franchise for decades.
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Before Brunson, arguably the top previous free-agent signing in team history was Allan Houston, who made two All-Star teams in nine seasons in New York and helped lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999 and the conference finals the following year.
John Starks and Anthony Mason weren’t traditional free agents, essentially unheralded players signed off the scrap heap after getting released from their previous NBA teams before becoming essential contributors to the gritty Knicks teams earlier in the 1990s.
Amar’e Stoudemire posted a fantastic first season with the Knicks in 2010-11 before various injuries hampered the remainder of his four-plus years here. Tyson Chandler was a Defensive Player of the Year and Jason Kidd provided invaluable veteran leadership around trade pickup Carmelo Anthony in 2012-13, the Knicks’ lone 50-win season — and their only playoff series victory — in the past 23 years.
And though Brunson’s current teammate, Randle, was something of a consolation prize after Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and other established stars bypassed the Knicks in the summer of 2019, the power forward is headed to his second All-Star Game in four seasons in New York.
That brings us back to Brunson, whose breakout performance in the playoffs last year with Dallas — especially while Luka Doncic was sidelined — showed the Knicks he was ready to run his own team.
Team president Leon Rose, Brunson’s former agent, brought in the player’s father, Rick, another former client as an assistant coach after he’d also served in that capacity under Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota.
Jalen Brunson’s overall stats — 23.9 points, 6.2 assists and a career-best 41.7 percent from long distance — still could get him named to his first All-Star Game if Boston’s Jaylen Brown (facial fractures) or someone else bows out of Sunday’s showcase. Trae Young of the Hawks and James Harden of the 76ers also could be considered.
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Initial snubs De’Aaron Fox (Kings), Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves) and Pascal Siakam (Raptors) were named instead of Brunson as injury replacements last week.
“Obviously, when I got it going, I got it going. But I think it’s contagious,” Brunson said. “As long as we have each other’s backs and keep pouring confidence into each other, I think we can get better and better.
“Honestly, I like where we’re at. Because we’ve done a lot. We’ve proven a lot, but at the same time we have a lot to prove.”