NBA

Jalen Brunson may be the goaltender the Knicks have always needed

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The guard position best exemplifies what New York basketball is all about. If you succumb to coastal elitist propaganda, as I do, then the Milky Way has made New York the place where basketball gets the most impact. 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 on a different tone), each 6’3 and less wanted to become the next great New York City Guard. The guards are dancers and brutes; shooters and slashers; enemies to opposing coaches and players on the other side. After Kemba Walker became the personification of what a work ethic and a deep bag of scoring and ball-handling tricks can get you, the city’s output of talented NBA guards dwindled.

That seems doubly so for the New York Knicks, who are both the smudge against the city’s black night sky and our big orange-and-blue hope. Stephon Marbury was the last guard we had that mattered. Before tattooing his number on his bald dome, becoming an outcast, and eating Vaseline on Ustream (yes, all of those things happened), Starbury could score and dish out the best of them. Years later, he ended up testifying in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden. All good things come to an embarrassing end. Since then, the Knicks — outside of a fairy-tale “Linsanity” stretch — haven’t had good guards. The names are laughable in their mediocrity: Chris Duhon, Sergio Rodriguez, Raymond Felton. Tony Douglas. Washed Jason Kidd. Pablo Prigioni. Shane Larkin. Washed Derrick Rose. Shank Jack. Franck Ntlikina. Elfrid Payton. All aspects of the Knicks’ mediocrity lead to this inescapable fact: the Knicks haven’t had a strong starting guard in many years.

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How good can Jalen Brunson be for the Knicks?

Brunson and the Knicks broke the rule The Notorious BIG instilled in all kids: never let them know how much dough you have. As soon as free agency opened, it was reported that the Knicks were signing the left-handed guard for $104 million. On the Mavericks, Brunson had the advantage of playing with All-NBA guard Luka Doncic. How effective he is without Luka is the big question. Still, Brunson should be a solid starter at worst. He’s a dancer. Watching him choose his places on the floor is like watching Ryan Gosling’s character in Conduct park an Acura. He’s getting there and you won’t know how. He is also improving with dribbling; he clears enough space for his shot with a subtle or exaggerated backward misstep. He’s New York’s best goaltender since Marbury. He is also from the Tri-State area. His dad Rick, who was just hired on Tom Thibodeau’s staff, was a Knicks player from 1998 to 2000. Despite his dad being accused of sexual harassment, Jalen’s return home is a beautiful story.

Another reason this move is highly publicized — aside from the Mavs claiming the Knicks tampered — is its scale, not its skill set. If big-name free agents are the arbiter of skill, the Knicks tend to get into that department. Brunson deciding to join the Knicks is a sign that NBA players are seeing that, under Leon Rose, the Knicks may have found religion.

Brunson is the rare second-round pick who has become worthy of more than $100 million on his next contract. After Michael Redd and Draymond Green, Brunson averaged 16 points and five assists last year on a 50.2/37.3/84.2 percent shooting split. He averaged 20.4/7.5/3.9 in the 17 games he played without Doncic in Dallas.

Now, don’t let the stats stun you: Brunson has holes in his game. His first step is average. (The last Knicks player who could blow by someone was a healthy Melo). He still has to learn to shoot the dribble. Part of what made Isaiah Thomas, Chris Paul, or even Darius Garland so successful is their ability to stop from anywhere in no time. It’s possible Brunson could improve on that: He sports a quick release that may have helped him in the playoffs against an athletic, long-running Utah Jazz team.

He’s also not the best fit next to Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. Randle is a skillful player but a slow player; the one whose game falls coincides with his often falling face. He has shown he can be successful throughout the season, but he also needs the ball in his hands to be more effective. RJ Barrett is a player who works better downhill. He’s not yet the shooter the Knicks need to take the team to the next level. It’s going to be interesting to see if the Knicks can hide those question marks.

What’s next for the Knicks after signing Jalen Brunson?

As good as Jalen Brunson is, signing him and then doing nothing wouldn’t make a big difference to the Knicks’ win/loss record. For many, pacing the Knicks roster is tantamount to being dissatisfied 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 good enough looms over the Knicks. A move for Donovan Mitchell seems palpable, but only if Leon Rose can bear to be patient enough for the Jazz to lower their king’s ransom by an asking price. Being mediocre in the NBA is a curse. There’s nothing wrong, on the face of it, with fighting just to make the playoffs. But all in all, the history book is never written when a team scratches respectability. The Brunson move is most effective if a matching chord occurs.

In the past, Knicks management reportedly got Brunson, then rushed to strike a deal that ended their roster flexibility. If Leon Rose and Co. decide to trade for Mitchell, then there’s a chance of a significant resurgence for the MSG faithful. There is a pithy dedication to making a contender. A patience the Knicks never had, but their fans wanted them to achieve. Too many questions remain, but the ambivalence of Knicks fans goes away. Brunson is a good start. Let’s see what’s next.

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