AN EIGHT- OR nine-figure subplot hovers over Jalen Brunson’s star rise during these NBA playoffs.
Brunson, the other guard the Dallas Mavericks landed in the 2018 draft, is poised to enter unrestricted free agency this summer.
Suffice it to say that the price to retain his services, a priority for the Mavs, has gone up. Brunson’s spectacular showing over the first four games of the Mavs’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz — an efficient 29.8 points and 4.8 assists per game, highlighted by 41- and 31-point performances in the Mavs’ pair of wins while superstar Luka Doncic was sidelined by a strained calf — has boosted his status as an attractive offseason target.
Who could blame Brunson if he heard cha-ching every time one of his jumpers or southpaw floaters splashed through the net during a tied series that resumes with Monday’s Game 5 in Dallas?
But Brunson, the former 33rd overall pick who is making $1.8 million in the final season of his rookie deal, insists his next contract — and potentially his next franchise — isn’t on his mind as he tries to help the Mavs make it to the second round for the first time since Dallas’ 2011 championship run.
“Not at all. Not at all. I promise you,” Brunson says. “My dad, we’ll joke about it, but [my family knows] that I don’t want to talk about it until the season’s over. That’s really not going to help me right now. … I know it’s a weird situation. People don’t believe that I don’t talk about it, but it’s not a topic of conversation until I guess we get there.”
It’s not a surprising answer for Brunson, the son of a former NBA journeyman and assistant coach.
“He’s boring as s— to interview. He learned that from Jay Wright,” Rick Brunson says with a laugh, crediting the former Villanova coach with whom Jalen won two NCAA titles and a National Player of the Year honor. “You ask him a question, it’s, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom — same answers. It’s a Villanova thing. Jay Wright programmed him.
“He didn’t get that from me.”
Jalen Brunson, 25, did get his renowned dedication from his dad, who played for eight teams in his nine NBA seasons, never on a guaranteed contract.
The grind was so real for Rick Brunson, that there were two requirements for family vacations during Jalen’s childhood: The hotel had to be a high-rise so Rick Brunson could run stairs, and there had to be a gym nearby where he could work out. He spent his pro career in survival mode, always trying to make a team, never affording to take days off.
“The work ethic comes from him — watching him, seeing that and then being able to work out with him summer after summer,” Jalen Brunson says. “You get better and better and see results after results.
“Growing up, he always told me he had the answers to the tests. He was the study guide.”
But the willingness to let down his guard during interviews? No, that wasn’t passed down from father to son. Which makes Rick Brunson the best person to ask about Jalen’s pending free agency.
“We’ve got to figure out if Dallas wants him. Not words,” Rick Brunson says. “Ain’t no discount. So don’t put it on us. Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”
THE NEW YORK KNICKS, a franchise with deep ties to the Brunson family, and the Detroit Pistons are expected by league sources to pursue him. Others could emerge.
Mavs governor Mark Cuban has stated he plans to re-sign Brunson and is well aware the price tag has become significantly more expensive, which would push Dallas well into the luxury tax. The Mavs have Brunson’s Bird rights, so they can give him a five-year deal while other teams are limited to four-year offers. Dallas would not have salary-cap space if Brunson leaves, so his departure would create a gaping void.
Dallas could have signed Brunson to a four-year extension for as much as $55.5 million before the season, but the Mavs didn’t offer it then nor did they engage in negotiations with Brunson’s representatives. He was coming off a disappointing first playoff series of his career, as former Mavs coach Rick Carlisle drastically cut Brunson’s minutes in the final few games of the seven-game exit against the LA Clippers.
“It sat with me all summer,” Brunson said at the start of training camp.
Nor were the Mavs willing to make that commitment midseason, when Brunson had transitioned from sixth man to starter and was thriving. An extension would have handcuffed the Mavs from including Brunson if a trade for a star materialized. Dallas offered the extension immediately after the Feb. 10 trade deadline, when Mavs forward Dorian Finney-Smith signed an identical deal.
“I told him once the season is started, that’s it,” Rick Brunson says. “I told the Mavericks, ‘Once the season is started, there’s no contract talk,’ and I went back against my word. In January, I thought he did enough where he deserved [the extension]. I said, ‘Hey, take the money, man.’ He wants security. He wants to live here. And they declined.
“He didn’t turn s— down. Y’all declined first. When y’all came back to him, we said, ‘Hey, we just want to finish out the season and go from there.'”
It had become apparent by the trade deadline that Brunson, who averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists per game with a 58.3 true shooting percentage this season, would command significantly more than $55.5 million on the open market. (Fun fact: Jalen scored more points this season than his dad did in his entire career. “Trust me, I know,” the son says with a big smile.)
NBA pro personnel scouts and executives polled by ESPN for this story anticipate that the floor for Brunson’s next contract will be an average annual salary of $20 million. The high end of the estimates range around $25 million per year.
“He’s going to make a lot of money,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said after Brunson led Dallas to a Game 2 win with a career-best 41 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and zero turnovers. “I don’t know if he needs an agent, but I’m gonna put my name in the hat.”
All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, one of several Jazz defenders who have been burned by Brunson this series, dismissed the notion that Brunson’s success in this series has been shocking. “I’m like, that’s Jalen Brunson,” Mitchell said before Game 3. “He’s a talented player. Jalen Brunson can go.”
Utah coach Quin Snyder has raved about Brunson’s impeccable footwork — before, during and after the dribble. Snyder and Mitchell have both noted how strong the 6-foot-1 and 190-pound Brunson is, helping him create space in the paint, where he’s an elite finisher despite his lack of height and limited explosiveness.
Only Memphis’ Ja Morant and Doncic had a higher shooting percentage inside five feet this season than Brunson’s 64.6% among guards with at least 200 attempts, per NBA.com/stats. Brunson also ranked among the NBA’s most prolific and efficient scorers in the five- to nine-foot range (50.7%) and 10- to 14-foot range (53.9%).
That has carried over into this series, where Brunson has scored 46 points on 50% shooting on those floaters and short jumpers, some despite contests from three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert — or “tip-your-hat shots,” as Snyder calls them.
“It’s not just what he did [in Game 2] and it’s not what he’s going to do going forward,” Kidd said of Brunson’s rise. “He’s already done the work this season. He’s shown that he deserves to be paid. He does his job at a very high level, and he’s a winner.”
There are plenty of reasons it makes sense for Brunson to stay in Dallas — if the price is right.
He’s comfortable in his role, being able to shift between playing off of Doncic and being the primary ball handler when the perennial MVP candidate rests. Brunson has flourished under Kidd, who has frequently mentioned “getting him paid” as a goal when discussing Brunson. And Brunson, whose “the vibes are immaculate” catchphrase has caught on with Mavs fans, has been a driving force in creating the culture of this Dallas team.
“I’ve been with these guys for four years and I’ve loved every second of it,” Brunson says, mentioning the close friendships he has developed with draft classmate Doncic and other teammates. “That family atmosphere is something that I love.”
The Pistons, according to league sources, see how well Brunson fits with Doncic and envision him similarly enhancing Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft who is also a big-bodied scorer and playmaker.
Detroit is rebuilding but has intriguing young talent and will add another high lottery pick this summer. The Pistons could be poised to make massive strides if they add a veteran with Brunson’s skill set and leadership ability. And Detroit enters the offseason with $25.5 million in cap space to spend.
There have been conspiracy theories swirling in the NBA gossip mill that Brunson is bound to end up in New York because of his family’s close connection to the franchise’s basketball brass.
Rick Brunson was the first player client of Knicks president Leon Rose, a former power agent who started Creative Artists Agency’s basketball division. Rose also represented Jalen Brunson on his rookie contract, negotiating the fourth year as non guaranteed instead of a team option, a technicality that is the difference between Brunson being a restricted or unrestricted free agent.
Leon Rose’s son, Sam, is one of the CAA agents who represents Brunson.
Rick Brunson has known Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau even longer than he has Rose. They met when Rick was a high schooler in Salem, Massachusetts, and Thibodeau was coaching at Salem State and would work out local prospects. Rick later served as an assistant coach on Thibodeau’s staffs with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rick is adamant he has no problem drawing a line between business and personal relationships — and he has proof.
“What about my ties to John Chaney?” Rick says, referring to the legendary coach he played for in college. “I’m a Temple diehard, and I had a difficult decision to make. Does [Jalen] go to Temple where I played and his mother played volleyball, or does he go to the best scenario for him and for him to thrive?”
Rick says he’s been persona non grata at his alma mater since Jalen chose to go to Philadelphia Big Five rival Villanova.
“I can’t go back there,” Rick says of Temple. “They don’t like me.”
RICK BRUNSON HAS no concerns about his son’s free agency affecting his relationship with Rose, who passed on an opportunity to acquire Jalen Brunson a couple of offseasons ago. The Mavs coveted guard Tyrese Haliburton in that draft and aggressively tried to trade up for him, offering a package of Brunson and the 18th and 31st overall picks, league sources told ESPN.
Dallas couldn’t find a taker before the Sacramento Kings used the No. 12 pick to select Haliburton — now playing for Carlisle after the Indiana Pacers acquired him in the Domantas Sabonis deal at the trade deadline — with the Knicks staying put and taking forward Obi Toppin with the eighth pick.
Brunson has steadily improved since then, progressing from solid backup to 2020-21 Sixth Man of the Year finalist to second-best player for a Dallas team that earned home-court advantage in the first round.
“I don’t know how he wasn’t [among] the Most Improved Player candidates,” Doncic said before Game 3. “The jump he made this season, there are not a lot of people who did that.”
The Knicks, who could give Brunson the opportunity to be a full-time primary ball handler, need to shed salary to have the flexibility to sign him but could feasibly create $20 million or more in cap space. League sources say the Mavs have no intention of cooperating in potential sign-and-trade scenarios.
The Brunson family — Jalen, his father, his mother Sandra and his sister Erica — will sit down with his CAA agents and discuss free agency scenarios after the Mavs’ season ends.
Brunson is doing his best to try to make sure that isn’t soon.
“My point is, there are times when you have to make very difficult decisions,” Rick Brunson says. “I’ve made it very clear to Leon, ‘I love you to death. Your son works for Jalen, represents Jalen, but this is about Jalen.’ The one thing about Leon is he knows that. He raised Jalen that way, too.
“It’s about what’s best for Jalen. Leon wouldn’t never talk to me again. The question I have, is it a good fit in New York? We don’t know, because we have to sit down and figure it out [and evaluate the] draft. July 1 is a long way away.”
In the meantime, Jalen Brunson plans to just focus on helping the Mavs win playoff games.