How Villanova point guard Brunson evolved into a national player of the year candidate

Joe Juliano, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News on

Published in Basketball

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 history, 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, which will be announced Wednesday.

Initially, Brunson said, the start of his freshman year left him a little conflicted.

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"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."


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