On paper, it’s a quality move. The Knicks filled a massive hole at point guard by agreeing with Jalen Brunson on a four-year, $104 million deal, adding an on-the-rise player just entering his prime.
But Jeff Van Gundy said he sees it as more than that. He said he believes it’s a signing to improve the team culture, that the Knicks brought in a player who not only will provide more scoring, playmaking and defending, but also will raise the level of everyone else around him.
“[Brunson] brings a level of competitive spirit, intelligence and seriousness that any team in this league absolutely needs,” Van Gundy, the former Knicks coach and ESPN analyst, told The Post. “There’s not a lot of really good, serious competitors that are available, and I think the Knicks should be very, very happy and proud that they got one of them.
“He’ll figure out what he needs to do to give his team the best chance of winning, and whatever that may be. If it means scoring more, great. If it means handling more, great, creating more shots or playing off guys who do create. I love his versatility.”
Van Gundy prefaced the interview by admitting a tinge of bias. He has known the 25-year-old Brunson since he was 3 years old. Van Gundy coached Brunson’s father, Rick, first when he was in middle school at local camps and later with the Knicks. He has a strong relationship with the family.
That, in turn, is part of why he feels so strongly about this move. He has watched Brunson develop from a McDonald’s All-American in high school to a two-time national champion at Villanova to a breakout star this past postseason. Van Gundy knows the work ethic that has molded Brunson, and the dedication with which he treats his craft.
As Brunson entered the NBA draft in 2018 as the National Player of the Year in college basketball, most scouts projected the Villanova product to be a career backup. He lacked the athleticism and raw physical tools of other guards in his class. But Brunson has improved each year in the league, and is coming off a season in which he notched career-highs in points (16.3), assists (4.8), rebounds (3.9) and minutes (31.9). In the playoffs, he carried the Mavericks for most of a first-round series victory over the Jazz while Luka Doncic was out, and helped them reach the Western Conference finals, scoring 21.6 points on 46.6 percent shooting across 18 playoff games.
“I think what he is, is a player of significance in the NBA,” said Van Gundy, the last Knicks coach to lead the franchise past the second round of the playoffs. “What he’s always done is improve, and serious players incrementally improve their entire careers, particularly throughout their prime years, and he’s just starting to hit his prime.
“I have no doubt he’ll continue to grow and improve because he’s so serious. The fools don’t get better. Serious players continue to get better because it’s important to them.”
His career so far in the NBA, and his time preceding that at Villanova, back that up. Brunson is a player who gets better. He wins. The Knicks, who last won a playoff series in 2013 and have reached the postseason just once in the past nine seasons, could use more players like him.
“I can’t overemphasize enough that his serious approach to the game, and to improvement and to winning, is absolutely what a team needs that is coming off a challenging year,” Van Gundy said. “You don’t find too many of those guys out there in free agency that you can get. These were unique circumstances.
“I think he was very, very happy in Dallas, but this is an incredible opportunity for him to also challenge himself to be a starting point guard in this league on an every night basis. I think he’s going to respond exceptionally well.”