For the past 12 months, to the dismay of some, the Hoops Report has included Stevenson point guard Jalen Brunson in the same class as St. Rita’s Charles Matthews and Simeon’s D.J. Williams when it comes to the top three players in the Class of 2015.
While the majority will at least include Brunson in the same paragraph with Matthews and Williams, the Hoops Report has maintained he should be in the same sentence. But while Matthews and Williams are regarded as top 25 talents nationally in their class, Brunson is nowhere to be found in that group.
But Brunson is that good. It’s just no one knows it yet.
It’s why even before his freshman season started over a year ago, Brunson was among the Hoops Report’s top dozen prospects in the state, regardless of class — and he’s only climbed higher since.
It’s why last spring the Hoops Report called Brunson the best freshman in the class.
The Hoops Report still has no reservations about including Brunson right there with the likes of Matthews and Williams in the Class of 2015. It’s early in the prep career for sophomores all across the state, but those three have set themselves apart from the rest of the class.
Right now there isn’t a more productive or polished player in the sophomore class in Illinois. That isn’t to say Brunson has maxed out or lacks upside. He’s grown to 6-1, will continue to fill out what is a solid frame and build, and he has the bloodlines.
Jalen Brunson’s father, Rick Brunson, starred at Temple in the early 1990s and is a former NBA journeyman who bounced around the league for eight seasons. He recently was a part of the Chicago Bulls coaching staff and is now an assistant for the Charlotte Bobcats.
The younger Brunson stacks up against any point guard in the state, regardless of class, because he can put a check in the column of the dream point guard checklist: willingness to get others involved, passing, vision, ability to run a fast break, court sense, scoring, crunch-time scoring, perimeter shooting whenever needed and leadership.
“He brings a rare combination, especially for a kid his age,” says Stevenson coach Pat Ambrose of his star sophomore. “On and off the floor he’s the complete package. He treats and talks with teachers, adults, coaches and teammates with so much respect. On the floor, his intelligence just sets him apart. He has that innate feel and basketball instincts you can’t teach.”
But here is another strength that jumps out at you when watching Brunson throughout the early part of his career. Whether it was in a summer shootout prior to his freshman year at Stevenson, playing an age group up with his NLP club team this past summer or at any point during his freshman campaign or early in this sophomore season, Brunson has had a unique ability — almost an innate ability — to make critical plays and key baskets in big moments.
It’s one thing to label a kid “fearless”; it’s another thing when a player his age shows it time and time again. That’s not normal.
The opening-round game at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament was another example. Ambrose put the ball in his star sophomore’s hands in the end. With the score tied in the closing seconds, Stevenson went with a 1-4 low isolation with Brunson given the freedom and open space to go help the Patriots win the game. He set up his defender at the top of the key, used a crossover to get him off-balance, then rose up from 16 feet to knock down the game-winning pull-up jumper with 3 seconds to play.
Brunson, who is averaging over 18 points and 5 assists a game, has that wherewithal to get everyone involved as a pure point guard. Surround him with talent at the next level, you’ll see a point guard who is going to set up one-dimensional scorers, set the table for streaky shooters and guys who can’t create their own shots. But he can then end the game with that “I’ll take over the last three minutes if they need me to.”
You are capable of doing that, even as a sophomore, when you have the well-rounded repertoire he possesses. He will stick a 3-pointer with a hand in his face with a smooth left-handed stroke. He has an advanced mid-range game with his pull-up jumper. And he has that crucial understanding of when, where and how to make a play and impact that possession.
So what’s Brunson lacking? He’s not what you would call an athletic marvel with blinding guard speed. He has basketball quickness and his off-the-charts I.Q., feel, craftiness, change of speeds while staying in complete control and all-around skill is more than enough to get him where he needs against anyone.
With the poise and composure Brunson plays with, it’s easy to forget he’s a sophomore and easy to envision a high school version of Deron Williams. He’s not Williams in terms of body type, though Rick Brunson played at 6-4, 195-pounds in the NBA, but his presence on the floor with the ball in his hands is eerily similar. Brunson has that same feel for passing and running a team. He has that same desire for wanting the ball in his hands with the game on the line and adding offensive punch and scoring when needed.
Plus, with his father, along with a top-notch high school coach in Pat Ambrose, Brunson is only going to get better.
As arguably the most complete guard in the state of Illinois — again, regardless of class — it’s a little puzzling why there hasn’t been a bigger buzz surrounding Brunson. National recruiting analysts have players from Illinois not named D.J. Williams and Charles Matthews ranked ahead of him. Foolish.
The reputation is building. The admirers are coming.
Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport