Jalen Brunson came to Villanova as one of the highest-rated prospects in the country. Everyone knew he could play. Yet even more noteworthy was his maturity level. He was never really a freshman, much like his roommate Ryan Arcidiacono. And late in the 2015-16 season, when Mikal Bridges started taking away some of his minutes at the end of games for defensive reasons, Brunson handled it admirably. It was one of the reasons the Wildcats won the national championship. And when they beat Kansas in the Final Eight, it was Brunson who made the two clinching free throws in the closing moments.
Now, two years later, with Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds no longer around, it's finally his team. And everyone knows it. Things will be different. And maybe even appreciably better.
"This year it's really obvious that he's a leader," coach Jay Wright said at the team's media day Tuesday afternoon. "It's a very comfortable role for him. He's a natural-born leader. I think the last two years were probably uncomfortable. He's also a natural scorer, and I think he'll be counted on to do that a little bit more. Even though he's a great point guard, he can score. And he's comfortable that way.
"I think you'll see a true Jalen Brunson this year."
He averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists a game last season for a team that went 32-4. He's been picked in the preseason media poll as the Big East Player of the Year. If that means added pressure, he doesn't seem too burdened about it. The son of former Temple standout Rick Brunson, this is what he always wanted to do.
JALEN BRUNSON’S STATISTICS
"Honestly, I really just think I work too hard to feel any pressure," said the 6-3 junior, who has a 3.5 grade-point average as a communications major and plans to graduate a year early in May. "I'm prepared for that. One thing I was taught growing up is it's only pressure when you're not prepared. And you're just not working hard. Those are two things I do all the time.
"I definitely have goals. I put them on the wall, like I do every year. The most important is to be the best captain that I can. I've been preparing myself to fulfill this role for the past couple of years. It's something I wanted, to be a leader in this program. I'm excited …
"I wanted to be the Big East Player of the Year, be first-team [all-conference] and all that. I also have academic goals. There's so many. If I don't write them down and make sure I look at them every day, there's no way in hell I'll be able to possibly achieve them. I just want the opportunity."
The Wildcats don't have any seniors. But Bridges, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, who transferred two years ago from Fordham, are all fourth-year juniors. Bridges is being projected as an NBA player, and Booth scored a team-high 20 points in the title-game victory over North Carolina before missing last season with knee problems that are apparently behind him. Freshman big man Omari Spellman, who sat out last year due to an NCAA academic ruling, has shed 37 pounds. He might be the best young big man Wright has ever had. So Brunson doesn't have to do it all. Or even most. But it's comforting to know he could if needed.
"He's going to have the ball in his hands a lot more with Josh gone," said Booth. "He always knows when to shoot and when to pass. He has that sense that all great point guards have. He had that natural leadership about him the moment he got here. Now he's older. He's going to be more aggressive."
The Wildcats are going to start in the Top 10. They open against Columbia on Nov. 10 at the Wells Fargo Center, while the Pavilion undergoes a year-long renovation. There is a good chance Brunson will not be back next season. So enjoy him for as long as it lasts. It could be something to watch.
"As long as we're keeping the culture, nothing changes — no matter what," Brunson said. "I'll still try to play my game, let it come to me. I need to be more aggressive, more vocal, be a better defender. I've worked on all those tirelessly. I can't wait to get the season underway.
"I have a lot of motivation just to play for my teammates foremost. I've learned from guys who were here in the past. I've picked my dad's brain. I'm not focused on just scoring. I have to make sure I'm making the right play at the right time.
"I think with Arch, Daniel [Ochefu], Josh, Kris and [Reynolds], they all had their own unique way of leading a team. So I just kind of looked at it all together and meshed it into my way. I'm not going to be exactly like them. I have to find my own way."
In many ways, he already has.