Jay Wright knew what he was getting, a McDonald's all-American point guard with commensurate skills and a highest-level basketball IQ. This summer, in a series of televised basketball games from the island of Crete, the expectations for Jalen Brunson ratcheted higher.
"When I saw that, I said, 'Oh boy, there's a lot more coming with this now,' " Wright said recently. "Because that lit up the NBA guys' eyes. . . . I said, You know what, he's going to come in as one of these guys they talk about - one and done. He's just going to have to deal with it."
The tournament in Crete wasn't some summer jamboree. It was high stakes, the FIBA under-19 world championship. Brunson is the reason - the reason - a bunch of American teenagers got on the plane with gold medals.
Maybe the U.S. team could have survived a semifinal without the 30 points Brunson put up against Greece in front of a rabid Greek crowd. (Think Cameron Crazies with fireworks.) But there just isn't a reasonable chance the Americans would have beaten Croatia in overtime in the final without Brunson taking complete control.
The United States had plenty of young talent, including Harry Giles, a tall phenom headed for Duke next year. But the young guys looked young in that final, and Brunson took care of them all. He hit big shots in easy rhythm, dished out seven assists, committed no turnovers. Whenever the U.S. team needed a play, Brunson made one.
U.S. coach Sean Miller of Arizona told Sports Illustrated after the final, "That kid is a Final Four point guard."
As for dealing with the repercussions of that success, Wright said, "He already has. We've got NBA scouts at every practice. I just knew that was going to be another one of his challenges."
Not a bad one, having scouts deciding whether you're ready to join their league. "For young kids, that's pressure," Wright said of the NBA attention, adding, "That's what they live for, and rightfully so."
I asked Brunson what it was like to deal with the pressure of an international final. "I didn't really feel pressure," he said. "I knew there was a lot at stake. I just had to play my game. I knew what I was going to do."
But as a transition from high school to college, Brunson said, "It helped me because you're playing against pros over there. In Europe, a lot of people don't go to college necessarily and are already in their league for two or three years, playing professionals. It's a really different type of game, but I really learned from that experience."
It's a key point. Croatia's top guard Nik Slavica left his hometown when he was 10 years old to move to a top Croatian club's youth team. His competition at practice now includes not just Euro pros but former U.S. college stars such as Devon Saddler of Delaware.
Let's pause to state the obvious. Villanova has quite the assortment of interesting parts. Josh Hart was named outstanding player of the Big East tournament. Hart would be the centerpiece of a lot of top-25 teams. Ryan Arcidiacono, co-Big East player of the year last season, and Phil Booth would each be the sole point guard on most top-25 teams. Daniel Ochefu will be closely scrutinized by NBA scouts. Championship teams would kill to have a player like Kris Jenkins.
Maybe adding Brunson to this mix at least makes up for the loss of Darrun Hilliard, who showed last season why he's now with the Detroit Pistons. To think a freshman could offset all that Hilliard brought usually would be crazy. It still is asking a lot.
Wright correctly recites the mantra that, starting with tonight's opener against Fairleigh Dickinson, Villanova must get better defensively, to replace the guys who are gone at that end of the floor, in order to achieve big things. But those big things are achievable, and Brunson obviously is a big reason why.
An interesting facet is that Brunson doesn't have to do right away what he did in the summer - take care of a bunch of talents still learning their way. This is kind of the opposite situation. Brunson gets to fit into an older group, be the young guy, the phenom.
You'll just see right away, he plays like an old guy. He can't hide that, and Villanova fans shouldn't want him to.