May 25, 2024

Jay Wright opens up on ‘Villanova Knicks’ and explains why he didn’t think Jalen Brunson would be this good

The New York Knicks are one of the best stories in the NBA playoffs right now. They’re up 2-0 in their playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, and look to be on a collision course with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Even with all the injuries the Knicks have dealt with, they’ve managed to find a way to pull out wins, and that’s primarily due to the trio of Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo.

Brunson is the head of the snake, scoring 40+ points during a four-game stretch, joining an exclusive club in the process. Hart is the Swiss army knife, capable of making the hustle plays, playing lockdown defense and hitting crucial 3s when needed. And DiVincenzo is the 3-point marksman, shooting 41.7% from deep through the playoffs. But before these three were lighting up Madison Square Garden, they were teammates at Villanova, helping win NCAA championships in 2016 and 2018.

Former Villanova head coach Jay Wright has seen these guys shine bright on the biggest stage, but even he didn’t think what they’re doing, specifically Brunson, was possible. 

“I didn’t think (Brunson) would be this good,” Wright said during an exclusive appearance this week on CBS Sports’ Beyond the Arc podcast. “I thought he would be a point guard on an NBA championship team because he’s such a winner. I thought he’d get with a Luka Doncic — I thought that was a great situation for him. I thought he’d get with a Luka Doncic and lead a team to an NBA playoff. Maybe a more talented player might be the leading scorer, but he’d be the leader. When that talented player got hurt sometimes and he needed to score, he’d score. That’s what I thought his NBA career would be.”

Listen to the full interview between Jay Wright and John Gonzalez below and subscribe to the Beyond the Arc podcast for new episodes throughout the NBA playoffs.

After being drafted in the second round by the Mavericks in 2018 — the same draft they landed Luka Doncic in — Brunson primarily came off the bench in each of his first three seasons. He averaged modest numbers through those years, but was always second fiddle to Doncic. 

Brunson really started to show signs of becoming something more than just a solid role player in his fourth season. He became a full-time starter, and averaged 16.3 points while shooting over 50% from the floor. When Doncic missed the first two games of the playoffs that year, Brunson is the one who put the Mavericks on his back. He dropped 41 points in Game 2 of that series against the Jazz, and the Mavericks not only won that round, but made it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2011. Had it not been for Brunson shouldering the offense in those early games, and continuously putting up big numbers as the playoffs carried on, Dallas wouldn’t have made it that far.

Following that season, Brunson then decided to sign with the Knicks instead of staying with the Mavericks, a decision that was seen as betting on himself to prove he can be the No. 1 guy on a team.

“By him choosing to go to the Knicks, he chose being the go-to guy over being the complementary guy,” Wright said. “He had a good thing there in Dallas, and he loved Dallas, and he loved Luka. But he wanted to be the guy. That’s just what is so unique about him. It’s not selfishness. He wants to lead, and he wants to carry a team. He wants the responsibility. He’s such a rare individual.”

Brunson has shown tenfold that not only is he capable of being the guy he can come up huge in clutch moments. So too have Hart and DiVincenzo. Wright recalled when Hart drilled a deep 3-pointer in his freshman year when Villanova was down five points to Purdue on the road. 

“He’s a really unique guy,” Wright said. “Throughout his career, one of the things — he did a lot of great things for us — but one of the things he always did, he was the same kind of 3-point shooter. He wasn’t known as a 3-point shooter, but any big ones, he always hit. It was incredible.”

Hart’s shooting 43.9% from deep during the playoffs, and against the Sixers in the first round his 3-point shooting was a key reason why the Knicks were so difficult to beat. He connected on four 3-pointers in three different games, proving that not only is he capable of knocking down big shots, he can be a consistent threat from there, similar to DiVincenzo.

“One of the things about Josh and Donte is — and it sounds corny and I hate that it’s corny but it’s really how these guys think and I think that’s what makes them unique and I think people are getting to see it right now. Both of them went into the NBA thinking like ‘whatever team I’m on I want to help them win.'”

The Nova-Knicks has been a funny moniker because of Brunson, Hart and DiVincenzo all playing together once again. But just like they did in college, they’re once again leading their team to a deep postseason run, and Wright is enjoying watching his former players have success at the next level.