From his courtside seat at Knicks games for the last 35 years, where he serves as an analyst for local TV, Walt Frazier has watched dozens of point guards come and go for the home team. He just hasn’t seen many All-Star point guards play for the Knicks since, well, himself.
As one of the 75 greatest players in history, Frazier was a seven-time All-Star, his last appearance in 1976. And to put this dry spell in perspective, let’s just say he has twice as many NBA titles as the Knicks had All-Stars follow him at the position.
That’s two titles for the flamboyantly-dressed man called “Clyde,” and only one other Knicks All-Star point guard: Mark Jackson in 1989.
“Seriously?” said Frazier, clearly stumped by the stat.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Knicks haven’t won a championship since they were led by an All-Star surveying the floor, breaking down defenses and “dishing and swishing,” to borrow a Clyde-ism he uses on TV. And while the next Knicks’ championship is unlikely this season — it’s now 40 years since anyone paraded down Broadway — the chances of a Knick point guard wearing an All-Star uniform again seems solid. Seriously.
It all depends on the level of respect that the Eastern Conference coaches, who vote for the East reserves, have for Jalen Brunson, who’s changing the conversation in New York here in his first season with the Knicks.
His impact, leadership and production give the Knicks an instant credibility boost and himself a strong case to get selected. Brunson is more than fulfilling the hope the Knicks had when they signed him away from the Mavericks last summer in free agency, and checking all the boxes for what the Knicks needed most.
“He’s exceeded my expectations,” Frazier said. “He’s been phenomenal, dealing with pressure, breaking down the defense, tremendous leader, savvy and smart player.”
Brunson was a supporting player his last few years with the Mavericks, a sidekick to Luka Doncic. He prospered in spurts but was obviously unproven in terms of running his own team. That wasn’t changing until he left Luka and grabbed the wheel in a new place. Halfway through this season, the evidence is in and it’s compelling. The Knicks are already Brunson’s team because he’s at the root of everything good that happens.
“I think my job is to be a great teammate,” Brunson said, “be the best version of myself, help my team win games, and just be a part of something special.”
He’s averaging 22.5 points (29.5 per game in January), with a career-high 44 a few weeks ago. He’s refreshingly efficient, shooting 47% overall and 40 from deep. He’s tied for third in the NBA in total points in the clutch (fourth quarters, final minutes, tight games) with only three turnovers in those situations.
“He’s not fast but he’s quick,” Frazier said. “He uses his body very well, able to squeeze between the defenders for the angles to get his shot off. What he lacks for speed he gets his body in there. Can’t foul him because he makes his free throws. Deadly from 5-8 feet. Leads the league in drawing charges. Sacrifices his body.”
Frazier added: “He just had eight consecutive games scoring 25 or more points, the most by a Knicks guard … surpassing me.”
Brunson is a refreshing change for thirsty Knicks fans who rarely see his type. The point guards who suited up since Frazier haven’t exactly been roses at the Garden — even though there has been a Rose, named Derrick, among them.
A roll call of Knicks point guards over the last three decades reveals a Scott Brooks and a Brooks Thompson, an Erick Strickland and a Rod Strickland. A few, like Rose, were beyond their prime when they finally joined the Knicks, such as Jason Kidd, Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups. Nate Robinson won a few dunk contests but not much acclaim otherwise. Stephon Marbury, a playground legend from Coney Island, had better years across the river in New Jersey with the Nets than with the hometown Knicks.
Jeremy Lin enjoyed a bombastic few weeks that earned him a pair of Sports Illustrated covers and rode the bolt of lightning called Linsanity before he flamed out.
And for a brief time, there was another Brunson running the point in New York, and while Rick (Jalen’s father, now an assistant for the Knicks) was capable enough, he wasn’t as polished as the son he still tutors, this time from the Knicks bench as an assistant to coach Tom Thibodeau.
“We’ve had some good guards, just not All-Star caliber,” Frazier said. “Gotta have a good point guard in the game today. The centers are negated because of the 3-ball.”
I think there’s a whole ‘nother level he can get to.”
— Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau on Brunson
Brunson is 26 and seems made for New York because he’s never rattled and keeps his emotions in check, which helps him deal with all the issues that come with playing in the big city and for a franchise that simply hasn’t had much success the last two decades. That’s why he was a no-brainer decision for the Knicks and Thibodeau, who once coached Rick and has known Jalen since he was a kid.
“He’s a team-first guy. He’s always about all the right things,” Thibodeau said. “The way he practices, the way he is in meetings, who he is as a person, I think that stuff’s invaluable to a team. I’ve always been a big believer in the best leadership you can have are the things that you do each and every day.
“So you can tell what’s important to him. Just watch him. He’s not one of those rah-rah beat-my-chest type of guys. He’s all about the team, he’s all about winning, he’s all about work, he’s all about unselfishness . . . He’s the ultimate pro, got a great feel for everything. Nothing throws him off.”
Thibodeau cited Brunson’s entire basketball career, where he won championships in high school and two national titles at Villanova, as a track record that could stretch into the NBA.
“That’s the story of his life,” Thibodeau said, “everywhere he’s been, and he’s getting better.”
Although he was college basketball’s player of the year, Brunson lasted until the second round of the 2018 draft mainly because of concerns about his lack of athleticism, much like his father. But Brunson is a typical son of a former pro — wise from being around the game since he was 6, experienced beyond his years, and sees the floor.
After the first two seasons of his four years with the Mavericks, Brunson’s growth soared, and even though Luka dominated the ball, the Mavericks often employed a two-point guard system because Brunson became valuable. When Luka suffered an injury that caused him to sit in the playoffs against Utah, Brunson was tremendous: 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists in one game, then 41, eight and five in another.
For the Knicks, whose history of lacking leadership and high-level production at point guard was problematic, Brunson was an easy solution during free agency.
And the impact has been immediate. Brunson’s shooting efficiency and take-charge approach in fourth quarters are reasons why the Knicks are positioned for a possible playoff appearance. This season, therefore, could satisfy a pair of dry spells — an All-Star point guard and a trip to the postseason.
Thibodeau said: “I think there’s a whole ‘nother level he can get to.”
What’s strange about the point guard dilemma that haunted the Knicks for so many years is the city itself long developed a reputation for producing stars and even Hall of Famers at the position. From Lenny Wilkens to Nate Archibald, Kenny Smith to Kenny Anderson, and dozens of others, the five boroughs served as a pipeline to the pros — but few made their way to the Knicks.
Well: Brunson was born in New Jersey, so that’s close enough.
Brunson is among a small group of up-and-comers with decent shots at becoming first-time All-Stars. Tyrese Haliburton of the Pacers, who leads the league in assists, will be in direct competition with Brunson for a spot in the East. There’s also De’Aaron Fox of the Kings, Anthony Edwards of the Wolves, OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lauri Markkanen of the Jazz.
He’s the best point guard the Knicks have had in years, but luckily for the Knicks, his mindset goes well beyond that.
“I strive to be the best player every time I step on the court,” Brunson said.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.