When he first saw Jalen Brunson on the practice court as a Villanova basketball player, Ryan Arcidiacono knew that Jay Wright had recruited a special talent, an Illinois high school phenom who could easily score 20 points a game from the start.
But Brunson decided to go the team-oriented route, filling a role, and drew the admiration of Arcidiacono, who was three years ahead of Brunson at ‘Nova.
“You could just tell he was mature for his age; I know coach Wright said it throughout the season,” Arcidiacono, who is back with Chicago’s Windy City affiliate in the NBA G-League after playing in 13 games with the Bulls, said Monday in a telephone interview.
“You could just tell he had confidence in himself, that he knew he was a good player. Coming in his freshman year, he said, ‘OK, I’m going to play my role and be as good as I can be in this role, even though I think I can score some points and lead this team.’ He kind of took that co-driver’s seat with myself.”
Brunson delivered a steady hand with Arcidiacono that first year and became part of the Wildcats’ 2016 national championship team. He evolved into a scorer and excellent floor leader to gain unanimous first-team All-Big East honors as a sophomore, and now has elevated his game to where he is the favorite to win national player of the year.
Initially, Brunson said, the start of his freshman year left him a little conflicted.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. “I think most guys who were as highly touted as I wanted to be the guy right away, and I really wanted to be the go-to guy. I really wanted to be a key contributor. But I also wanted to do what’s best for the team. It was a decision between what I wanted to do, or what was best for the team.
“I chose what was best for the team, fit into a role and be the guy that really just focuses on his teammate and does the right thing, and defends and rebounds.”
Brunson entered knowing the culture that is Villanova basketball, “playing hard, playing together, playing for your teammates and not just playing for yourself.”
Arcidiacono said it was a matter of playing “to the standards and the intensity of what Coach Wright and everyone expects from each other.”
“I think we had to teach him a little bit just to scratch the surface of taking some charges and diving on some loose balls,” Arcidiacono said. “But I watch him now, and it seems like he’s taking two charges a game.”
Brunson also learned lessons in leadership from Arcidiacono.
“He had a lot of experience that I got to pick off of, the situations he’s been in with Coach, the situations he’s been in in games,” he said. “So having a leader that’s been through a lot did help me.”
Wright likes the way Brunson and Arcidiacono worked when they were teammates, and also likes that they still talk about the game today.
“Arch always had that feeling for when we needed it, he’d go make the plays,” he said. “They were the same kind of players in high school – really dominant players on their teams. It’s a matter of basketball IQ, maturity and really the selflessness that they both have that has impressed me the most.”
The all-around maturation of Brunson’s game came this season. He averages 19.0 points and 4.8 assists for the Wildcats, who begin play in the Big East tournament on Thursday night. He has scored 31 points, his career high, on three occasions. He averages less than 1.7 turnovers per game. He has played solid defense.
To Wright, he is the ultimate team player.
“I know how much he has dreamt about being on a team in college where he could carry the team, because that’s what he lives for,” he said. “He has tempered that with carrying the team, yet being a leader and making sure everybody else is taken care of. That’s probably impressed me the most.
“You’ve seen where we’ve gotten in trouble in games and he goes and takes it over. He could do that anytime but he’s always looking to take care of his teammates, make sure his teammates look good, play well. Then when he’s needed, he steps up.”
Brunson has picked up significant momentum in national player of the year discussions in recent weeks over Oklahoma freshman Trae Young, whose Sooners have struggled in the last month. Bruson, who on Tuesday received player of the year honors from NCAA.com, NBCSports.com, and USA Today, considers the talk to be “pretty cool, knowing the players that have won it before.”
“I think it’s really an honor to me and my family and this university,” he said. “It’s a credit to my teammates for having that confidence in me and putting me in this position because, without the success that we’ve had as a team, I definitely would not be in this discussion at all.”
Arcidiacono said he is proud of what Brunson has been able to achieve this season, and said he hopes he can bring home the individual prize.
“I’m pumped for him,” he said. “I love the kid. He works so damn hard. You can see he’s really pieced it all together.”