Scouting Jalen Brunson, and upgrading him for the draft

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Villanova guard Jalen Brunson was the consensus national player of the year for the NCAA champs.

Elan Vinokurov thought he had a handle on Jalen Brunson. This time last year, Vinokurov, who lives in Conshohocken and publishes his EV Hoops draft guide that includes NBA teams as subscribers, had a hard time thinking how Brunson could improve his draft stock by returning to Villanova for this past season.

A year ago, Vinokurov believed Brunson had an NBA future, but maybe a limited one. He explained his old thinking with phrases such as “supremely solid.” No wow factor. A little small, a little slow. Knows how to play the game … but is that enough?

Now? Vinokurov believes Brunson is worthy of an end-of-lottery pick. It’s not the NCAA title that changed things. And Vinokurov is not predicting that draft result next week. That’s not the point of his guide; he’s saying what he would do. He doesn’t do mock drafts but believes a winning team toward the end of first round with a need for a point guard will grab Brunson. (The Sixers aren’t likely to be that team, he’d guess, with T.J. McConnell on the roster.)

What changed Vinokurov’s mind on Brunson this season?

“This year, we came to the conclusion, he had mastered the position,’’ said Vinokurov, who has a small staff that also evaluates, although the final assessment is his to make.  “He had truly learned everything the position requires. Not in some flashy ways. He just knew to run offense, how to feed the hot hand, knew where the ball needed to go. No one could rattle this guy.”

In his mind, all four Villanova guys headed for next week’s draft should go in the first round. Mikal Bridges and Brunson first, then Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman. (Vinokurov is sold more than most NBA draft guides on Spellman’s worthiness of a first-round pick, that he has legit pro skills.)

Brunson is where Vinokurov is the outlier, though. Unlike a lot of draft experts, Vinokurov believes Brunson belongs in any guard discussion that includes Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who have their own question areas, in his mind, on their NBA potential. To him, Trae Young is in a higher category. Luka Doncic will be the first guard taken, although Vinokurov has reservations about whether Doncic will really be a future star.

Camera icon Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer
Elan Vinokurov, a Drexel grad and Conshohocken resident who runs an NBA scouting service. He uses his computer to check players’ stats and uses Post-it notes to cover his wall with the names of draft prospects. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The best Brunson comparison, Vinokurov suggested, are players from another time: Andre Miller and Mark Jackson. The question to him is how even those point guards would slot into the NBA of the next 10 years.

What really sold Vinokurov and solidified his thinking on Brunson was seeing him this season against Khyri Thomas of Creighton and Jevon Carter of West Virginia. If those guards could be first-rounders primarily because of their defensive abilities — and that’s how Vinokurov sees them — then Brunson’s performances against them should carry extra weight.

“Neither one made Jalen Brunson flinch,’’ Vinokurov said. “He just did whatever he wanted to.”

Obviously, Brunson was the consensus national player of the year. This isn’t shocking to hear someone so impressed by him. But Vinokurov’s job as he sees it is only to project forward. He doesn’t see Brunson as a defensive stopper but thinks he puts in the effort that will keep him from getting embarrassed, and he could actually embarrass plenty of backups, including posting them up.

Vinokurov, a Drexel graduate who works full-time, year-round, on the draft guide, isn’t limiting Brunson to backup status. He sees the possibility of Brunson ending up as a top-20 point guard at the next level. At the least:  “killer backup.” For as long as Vinokurov has watched Brunson, this whole assessment comes as a surprise to him. The scout knows, however, you keep scouting until the finish line.

“He kept earning my respect, little by little,’’ Vinokurov said.