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Jalen Brunson’s journey to top NBA prospect led by his father, Rick

Villanova's Jalen Brunson, center, goes to the basket between DePaul's Austin Grandstaff (1) and Marin Maric (34) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, in Chicago.

Jalen Brunson was in kindergarten when his family first saw a glimpse of his ability as a floor general.

He was 5 years old and would stay up with his mother, Sandra Brunson, in New Jersey to watch his father, Rick, who was playing in the NBA across the country for the Portland Trail Blazers. The three-hour time difference didn’t matter. Jalen wouldn’t go to sleep until he saw Dad play live and talked to him afterward.

“He would, in his own little way, critique the game,” Sandra said. “He would say, ‘Dad, you missed that shot” or “What happened with this?’ ”

It was the beginning of a deep love affair leading to this moment — becoming a top prospect in the 2018 NBA Draft.

A lot of players are born with a natural talent. Jalen was born with a natural ability to work harder than anyone else he was facing.

“Talent had something to do with it,” Jalen said. “Everything I’ve gotten up until this point is because of my hard work.”

Jalen won a state championship with Stevenson High School, was chosen as a McDonald’s All-American his senior year, won a gold medal with Team USA, won two national championships with Villanova, was named the NCAA Player of the Year in 2018 and graduated from Villanova after just three years. Everything he credits to hard work.

Tonight the 6-2 guard is projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in the draft.

Reaching this point has been the ultimate dream.

“As I grew older, it wasn’t just to be in the NBA,” Jalen said, “the dream was to be successful in the NBA.”

Inspired by his father, a journeyman in the league, Jalen saw the work required to maintain a roster spot.

Rick Brunson spent nine seasons in the NBA, spending time on the roster of 10 teams — including two stints with the Bulls. His father’s career taught Jalen that nothing comes easily — and it’s not enough to just be talented.

“What Rick always wanted Jalen to know is that while this may be entertainment to some, this is a job,” Sandra said.

Jalen was Rick’s shadow throughout his career.

In the locker room, at workouts and on the court, Jalen was nearby. From a young age, Jalen looked at the game as work and he embraced the grind.

If Jalen was going to play, Rick was going to make sure he played right.

“He always made sure I wasn’t satisfied with anything,” Jalen said. “There’d be days in high school where I thought I played well, my team got the win, and I’d go to the gym still in my uniform and my dad would say, ‘C’mon, let’s go, we have more work to do.’ ”

That approach is what Jalen says got him to this point and he credits both parents.

As his childhood dream comes true and Jalen hears his name called in the draft, he will be alongside his family. Just like he was when he won his state championship at Stevenson, both NCAA championships and as he’s reached every other mountaintop in his career.

Just like all of those moments he knows his dad will still be pushing him saying, “There’s more work to do.”