BOSTON — It’s a natural tendency, describing a prospective ballplayer by a comparable pro. The comparables may or may not fit, but they serve a purpose, helping you visualize possibilities.
The best comparable for Villanova’s Jalen Brunson heard around here was by a veteran college administrator from another city.
“He’s Derek Jeter,’’ the administrator said.
In a specific way, the man meant. Brunson has mastered the art of saying all the right things without really saying anything. That’s his press-conference self. Brunson may roll his eyes at something his head coach or a teammate says, but he himself produces few eye rolls.
Q. How much does the crowd factor in?
A. They’re great. Nova Nation is great. To be honest, it doesn’t really affect us at all. We try to focus on 94 by 50 feet. Every time we step inside those lines, it’s all about what’s going on inside those lines.
He’s Jeter in that sense, but, when you think about it, Jeter in quite a few more ways, too. Scouts don’t always drool over his measurables, yet good luck finding anyone who doesn’t think Brunson won’t be a longtime professional because he simply knows how to play the game. Yes, he’ll tell you about core values. He long ago drank the Kool-Aid that Jay Wright hands out. Brunson was talking about “Villanova Basketball” at his media day before his freshman season. Even then, he was already buying his own mix, experimenting with the proper ingredients.
When he showed up, he was supposed to be a special player, and he has exceeded that. You’ve seen all the reasons Brunson is racking up national player-of-the-year awards. He tops the list of reasons Villanova is back in the NCAA East Region Elite Eight, facing Texas Tech on Sunday afternoon.
Friday night’s game began against West Virginia, and Brunson got the party started by driving into the teeth of the Mountaineers’ defense, seeming to get lost in there, before the ball left the scrum, reaching the ready hands of Omari Spellman in the left corner for a three-pointer.
Q. What do you expect Sunday?
A. Nothing changes no matter who we play, no matter where we play, what time, what day. It doesn’t matter. Nothing changes for us. We play every game like it’s our last. Sticking to our core values. Forty minutes of Villanova basketball.
The top post-game quote about Brunson this season came from Xavier coach Chris Mack: “You peel his face off, he’d probably have wires coming out of it.”
Brunson has won national player-of-the-year awards from USA Today, the Sporting News, and some others. The bigger awards are still to come out. You’ll hear his name again.
Wright talks a lot about Brunson’s intangibles, his maturity, and the rest, but you don’t pick up national awards on intangibles alone.
Asking Wright about X and O aspects Brunson has improved on during his time at Villanova, the coach said, “Man, there’s a lot. His ability to play off the ball where … he comes off screens like a two guard, catching to shoot, in transition, just catching to shoot threes.”
Wright kept going. Obviously, pick-and-roll decision-making, Brunson is elite at that, his coach said. His post-up game — “he’s our best low-post player. He can do everything from there.”
Wright wasn’t done: A great rebounding guard. As complete a basketball player as you can be, beyond being an expert point guard.
Wildcats assistant coach Ashley Howard said, “I think he’s gotten better at understanding that in those difficult situations,,” and you expect Howard to say that Brunson can take over, but the coach continued, “he can trust his teammates. He’s always been the dude on his team where, whenever the game is on the line, he can just go off. … He’s wired that way. In those difficult situations, now he knows, I can make a play, get my teammate a shot.”
In news conferences, Brunson isn’t blowing anything off. He’s engaged. Again, he spouts the Kool-Aid because he’s mixed the Kool-Aid. Also, watch him put his arm around his head coach during a basketball game. He’s comfortable in the moment.
Q. You guys were all there when you won it all, but Texas Tech has never been to the Elite Eight. How much does that help?
A. I think it definitely helps just because of the experience, but we know that they are hungry and have never been to this point and want to keep advancing. We know they are going to come in with a lot of energy, so we just have to be ready to play Villanova basketball.