I think it’s official, Jalen Brunson has arrived. And I don’t just mean he’s arrived as in he’s finally playing at a level good enough for recognition. I mean, he’s arrived in the eyes of NBA fans who have heavily slept on this man for the last six months. Brunson has elevated his play, and it’s right on time for the playoffs, which is something he vowed he’d do following a substandard performance in last year’s playoffs that saw him be benched. Jalen Brunson is in a contract year, and he’s putting himself in a position to be compensated handsomely when his time to get paid comes. Whether that team is the Mavericks or someone else, someone will pay top dollar for a player who I feel was one of the best keep secrets in the NBA before this playoff run.
But Jalen Brunson is proving something else on a larger scale. He’s proving that teams should start drafting high production 4-year college players earlier in drafts. For the last 15 years, if you stayed in college for more than two years, your draft stock would usually take a huge hit. Teams viewed more tenured college players almost like a depreciating car. Every year you stayed typically meant teams were less willing to take a chance on you higher in the draft. It’s worth noting that most guys that stay probably wouldn’t have been picked very high anyway, but you get the point. The thought was that teams were drafting potential over these four-year guys who produced at a high level. And I get that those guys with the highest potential make sense for these rebuilding teams’ timelines at the top of drafts. Those high-potential guys at the top of drafts are also typically the ones that are the superstars of the league. But once you leave the top ten, you see teams swinging and missing on projects that often don’t pan out.
Jalen Brunson isn’t an outlier. These playoffs have had multiple guys that are late-round picks that slipped strictly because they played in college too long. Desmond Bane is third these playoffs in 3-pointers made per game and has been the most consistent player on the Grizzlies. He played four years at TCU and fell to pick 30 partly because of his short wingspan but mainly because scouts thought his ceiling was low because he played four years. Herb Jones, who has quickly become one of the breakout defensive aces in the playoffs, fell to pick 35 mainly because he was one of the older players in the draft. Many other impactful role players on playoff teams were selected late or not chosen because they stayed in college.
Now I want to get it straight that I don’t think players that produce in college should automatically get picked higher. You should still have the skillset to translate in the NBA, and just because you were great in college doesn’t mean you are devoid of scouting. But what Jalen Brunson has done this playoffs should show scouts that older players coming into the draft should be taken more seriously. Brunson is also the poster child for why these 4-year guys should get more respect. Brunson is the prototype for the skills these guys bring. He’s fundamentally sound and seems to make the right play every time. He knows what he can do, and he’s always in control. Brunson is one of the most decorated players in college basketball history, and I think his skill set was good enough to be taken higher in the draft than 33.
The emergence of a guy like Jalen Brunson should show NBA scouts that if you are a team looking for a role player in the middle of a draft, these proven four-year players often can fill that void. In this upcoming draft, four-year stud Ochai Agbaji will probably fall out of the top 20 picks, and I think multiple teams will regret it. For the same reason teams passed up on Desmond Bane, Jalen Brunson, and Herb Jones, age will be why Ochai isn’t a lottery pick. He is an elite 3-point shooter, a great athlete, has an NBA-ready body, and has all the physical tools to be a top 15 pick. The NBA needs to stop docking players for being 2 or 3 years older. The all-star level numbers Brunson is putting up only vindicates the argument for higher drafting of proven college players. I hope teams stop making the mistake of drafting players solely based on potential.