The guard position best exemplifies what New York basketball is about. If you succumb to coastal elitist propaganda, as I do, then the Milky Way made New York the place where basketball is most reverberated through. Before capitalism ravished this city’s Black population and took away the best Catholic high school basketball programs (If Harlem’s Rice High School was still around, this piece takes a different tone), every 6’3 and under player wanted to become the next great New York City guard. Guards are dancers and brutes; shooters and slashers; enemies to the opposing coaches and players on the other side. After Kemba Walker became the personification of what work ethic and a deep bag of scoring and ball handling tricks can get you, the output of NBA-talented guards from the city dwindled.
This seems doubly so for the New York Knicks, who are both the stain on the city’s pitch black night skies and our Great Orange and Blue hope. Stephon Marbury was the last guard we had that mattered. Before he tattooed his number on that bald dome of his, became a pariah, and ate vaseline on Ustream (yes, all of these things happened), Starbury could score and dish with the best of them. Years later, he ended up having a testify in a Sexual Harrassment Suit against Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden. All good things come to an embarrassing end. Since then, the Knicks – outside of a fairytale “Linsanity” stretch – have not had good guards. The names are laughable in their mediocrity: Chris Duhon, Sergio Rodriguez, Raymond Felton. Toney Douglas. Washed Jason Kidd. Pablo Prigioni. Shane Larkin. Washed Derrick Rose. Jarrett Jack. Frank Ntlikina. Elfrid Payton. All aspects of the Knicks mediocrity leads to this inescapable fact: The Knicks haven’t had a good starting guard in many years.
How good can Jalen Brunson be for the Knicks?
Brunson and the Knicks broke the rule that The Notorious B.I.G. instilled in all kids: Never let them know how much dough you hold. From the moment free agency opened, there were reports that the Knicks were signing the southpaw guard for $104 million. On the Mavericks, Brunson had the benefit of playing with All-NBA guard Luka Doncic. How effective he can be without Luka is the big question. Still, Brunson should be a solid starter at worst. He’s a dancer. Seeing him pick his spots on the floor is like watching Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive park an Acura. He gets there and you won’t know how. He’s becoming better off the dribble too; he clears enough space for his shot with a subtle fake or exaggerated step back. He’s the best guard in New York since the aforementioned Marbury. He’s also originally from the Tri-State area. His father Rick, who was just hired to be on Tom Thibodeau’s staff, was a Knicks player from 1998-2000. Despite his Dad being accused of sexual harassment, Jalen coming back home is a nice story.
Another reason why this move is is highly publicized – outside of the Mavs claiming that the Knicks tampered – is for its scale, not skill. If big name free agents are the arbiter of competency, the Knicks have a tendency to strike out in that department. Brunson deciding to join the Knicks is a sign that NBA players are seeing that, under Leon Rose, the Knicks have possibly found religion.
Brunson is the rare second round pick that became worthy of $100+ million on his next deal. Following the likes of Michael Redd and Draymond Green, Brunson averaged 16 points and five assists last year on a shooting split of 50.2/37.3/84.2 percent. He averaged 20.4/7.5/3.9 in the 17 games he played in without Doncic in Dallas.
Now, don’t let the statistics make you giddy: Brunson has some holes in his game. His first step is average. (The last player the Knicks had who could blow by someone was a healthy Melo). He still has to learn how to shoot off the dribble. Part of what has made Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul, or even Darius Garland successful is their ability to pull up from anywhere on a dime. It’s possible that Brunson will be able to improve on this: He sports a quick release that was able to help him in the playoffs against an athletic and long Utah Jazz team.
He’s also not the best fit next to Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. Randle is a skilled player but a slow player; one who’s droopy game coincides with his often droopy face. He’s shown that he can be successful throughout the season but he also needs the ball in his hands to be most effective. RJ Barrett is a player who best works going downhill. He’s not yet the shooter that the Knicks need him to be for the team to take the next step. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Knicks can obfuscate those question marks.
What’s next for the Knicks after signing Jalen Brunson?
However good Jalen Brunson is, signing him and then doing nothing wouldn’t make that much of a difference on the Knicks’ win/loss record. For many, surveying the Knicks roster amounts to dissatisfaction with the lack of star talent on the roster. RJ Barrett has done nothing wrong in his adult life, but he can’t be our best player. The ghost of Carmelo Anthony not being quite good enough hangs over the Knicks. A move for Donovan Mitchell seems palpable but only if Leon Rose can stomach being patient enough for the Jazz to lower their king’s ransom of an asking price. Being mediocre in the NBA is a curse. There is nothing wrong, on face value, of fighting just to get in the playoffs. But in totality, the history book are never written when a team is scraping respectability. The Brunson move is at its most effective if a corresponding deal happens.
In the past, Knicks management would have gotten Brunson and then rushed to find a deal that ended their roster flexibility. If Leon Rose and Co. do decide to trade for Mitchell, then there’s a chance of a meaningful resurgence for the MSG faithful. There’s a lapidary dedication in making a contender. A patience that the Knicks never had, but that their fans wanted them to attain. Too many questions remain, but the ambivalence Knicks fans one had is going away. Brunson is a good start. Let’s see what’s next.