Jalen Burnson: "I consider myself an exceptional shooter. I still have to work at it." (Photo courtesy of Sam Webb)
Over the first six weeks of the AAU season one of the hottest names on the circuit has been Jalen Brunson, a point guard from Des Plaines (Ill.) Stevenson. The 6-0, 170-pound sophomore has impressed while playing with the talent-rich AAU club Mac Irvin Fire.
On a team that features five-star prospects Cliff Alexander (a 2014 center from Chicago Curie) and Jahlil Okafor (a 2014 center from Chicago Whitney Young), Brunson has managed to stand out in his own right. That said, it has been in the games that he played without the aforementioned superstars where his talent has shone even brighter.
Brunson was among the standouts regardless of class at the Spiece Run N' Slam All Star Classic in Ft. Wayne, Ind., a few weeks back. He balanced an ability to penetrate and set up teammates with his pinpoint accuracy from long range. It was a performance consistent with what he turned in during prior tournaments, with one exception. In the Fire's opening game Brunson had an uncharacteristic outing, finishing with multiple turnovers and only 10 points. The forgettable effort culminated with missing an open 15-foot runner for the win.
What followed was a verbal scolding from his dad, Charlotte Bobcats assistant Rick Brunson, that would have made John Chaney — his dad's former coach at Temple — proud. Old school basketball observers would classify the exchange as "hard coaching." If the non old schoolers that were present and cringing in obvious disapproval would have stuck around for young Brunson's second game, they might have sung a different tune. The deft-shooting sophomore scorched the nets all day, beginning with his 29 point, seven-triple effort that morning. Afterward, the elder Brunson was certain about the impact of the challenge he had issued to his son.
"You watched it today, didn't you," Mr. Brunson asked with a smile. "He played hard, man. If you are not going to play hard at something you can control, there is no reason to come and play in the tournament. That's what we talked about. If you don't play hard, go home! To me, if you play hard and play unselfish, good things happen. I thought (in the opening game) he didn't play hard; he played selfish, and bad things happened."
That no-nonsense approach had worked on Mr. Brunson during his days as a player, and he isn't bashful about using that same approach in molding Jalen Brunson the player. That, however, should not be confused with his job of molding Jalen Brunson the man.
"I am a dad at home, I am a coach on the court," Mr. Brunson said firmly. "When we walk between these lines he clearly understands that I am coaching every single play, every single game. I never talk to him about shots. I never talk to him about scoring. I did talk to him about things he can control. That is playing hard, playing defense, playing with effort."
Patient during recruiting
There's nothing subtle about the delivery of that message, but to Rick Brunson, that's a key aspect of his son's preparation. The opposition is hardly ever subtle. As a matter of fact, it's often more tenacious when it finds out Jalen Brunson is the son of a former McDonald's All-American co-MVP (with Chris Webber in 1991), a college standout, and NBA player. That's why he dismisses any suggestion that his own career or his hard coaching puts too much pressure on his son.
"To me, I think pressure comes from the pressure you put on yourself," he stated. "I think God gave him an ability to play basketball. We talked about it. He said he wants to play and he wants to be the best, so I am going to push him. I know what it is to be the best. I was one of the best high school players in the country, so I know what it is. I am trying to teach him to be better and hopefully he can learn from that."
That line between coach and parent is often less definitive in many other families. For the Brunsons, the clear separation between roles has helped father and son achieve an understanding. Jalen receives the proper motivation and teaching without taking the delivery personally. That's why he was able to put the aforementioned subpar performance behind him and respond with a lights-out showing.
"Coming from a four-hour car drive I was a little tired and mentally wasn't ready," Jalen admitted. "I know when my dad is being a dad and when he is being a coach. He coached me last night and I really got the message. He (has) coached me harder before — to the point where he wanted to kick me out of the gym. He has a lot of respect for me, obviously, but he really just tries to push me to the best of my abilities.
"I just tried to come out strong (in game two). I didn't try to score the ball much (early in the game), but once I started getting off I just kept shooting. He said, 'Once you get off son, don't stop shooting. Good shooters don't stop shooting.' I consider myself an exceptional shooter. I still have to work at it. My mindset was just different (after the first day of the tournament)."
It was a mindset consistent with the one he normally plays with — the same one that has multiple schools lining up to court him.
"(Recruiting) is blowing up, but I've just really got to stay patient," Jalen said. "I just got an offer from Tulsa. I have been hearing a lot from Virginia, which just offered me, which is great. I've also been hearing from Purdue (offer), Illinois (offer), and a lot of Big Ten schools."
Michigan is among those Big Ten schools, and while no offer has been extended yet, the Wolverines have been hot on the talented sophomore's trail in recent weeks.
"Coach (LaVall) Jordan came to my open gym during the live period," reported Brunson. "I shot pretty well. He just said (in subsequent phone conversations) that they are really looking hard at me.
"Michigan — they want me, they are really interested in me. I haven't had the chance to be on the phone with Coach Beilein because I am really just trying to focus on school right now since we're coming down to the end of the year with exams. Hopefully he offers me a scholarship. I will be very thankful for that."
Where Michigan ranks
June 15 is a significant date for John Beilein's program every season, as it marks the earliest point he will offer rising juniors (in voluntary compliance with a National Association of Basketball Coaches guideline). Brunson has suddenly emerged as a prospect that will figure prominently in that offer discussion. Even before that, though, he already holds the Maize and Blue in high regard.
"I have watched Michigan a lot because of Trey Burke," Brunson said. "I am not going to say I modeled my game after him. I look at the different things he does. He is very skilled and very smart. For his size, he is kind of athletic. He is kind of the same height as me. I really just kind of look at the little things he does — not the fancy moves and not scoring the ball. I look at what he sees and how he runs him team."
The elder Brunson also holds the Wolverines in high regard due especially to Beilein's reputation. However, he also looks favorably upon a number of other coaches, including the one that leads Michigan's arch hardwood rival.
"I talked to Beilein the other day," Mr. Brunson reported. "They are very, very interested in (Jalen). I like Beilein and I like Michigan State. I think they are (outstanding) coaches. You can take Beilein and you can take Coach Izzo — they do not get the greatest players all the time and yet they always end up in the Final Four and always in the NCAA Tournament. That means a lot to us.
"If Coach Chaney came out of retirement that is where he would be going. Like I said, I was a McDonald's All-American and I went to Temple. Everyone was shocked. But I picked a coach — somebody I could relate to, somebody that could be at my wedding. That is the same thing I told my son. You're successful when you have relationships with your coach.
"We are going to pick a coach. We are not picking a school. I don't give a (crap) if it's Duke, Butler or VCU. If you are a hell of a coach, in my opinion, you've got a chance for Jalen."
At this point the younger Brunson is a long way from figuring out whom that coach is, and he plans on taking his time getting there.
"No favorites right now, not at all," stated Jalen. "I am really taking it patiently because I have a lot of time on my hands. I think senior year before the season starts is when I will make my decision.
"Really, I am looking for a coach who can really help me be successful in life, not just basketball. Like my dad, he had Coach Chaney. He really helped him in life. He still talks to him. I am really just looking for a coach that can really help me like that."
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears every Thursday at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.