August 9, 2022

On paper, it’s a gesture of quality. The Knicks filled a huge hole at the point guard by agreeing Jalen Brunson to a four-year, $104 million deal, adding a rising player who is just entering his prime.

But Jeff Van Gundy said he saw more than that. He said he thought it was a signing to improve team culture, that the Knicks brought in a player who would not only provide more goals, play and defense, but also raise the level of everyone. those 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 aren’t a lot of really good, serious competitors available, and I think the Knicks should be very, very happy and proud to have one.

“He will figure out what he needs to do to give his team the best chance of winning, and whatever. If that means scoring more, great. If that means managing more, great, creating more plans or playing with guys who create. I like its versatility. »

Jalen Brunson and Jeff Van Gundy
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Van Gundy prefaced the interview by admitting a tinge of bias. He has known Brunson, 25, since he was 3 years old. Van Gundy coached Brunson’s father, Rick, first while in college at local camps and then with the Knicks. He has a strong relationship with the family.

That, in turn, is part of why he’s so attached to the move. He saw Brunson go from a McDonald’s All-American in high school to a two-time national champion at Villanova to a breakout star in the recent playoffs. Van Gundy knows the work ethic that shaped Brunson and the dedication with which he treats his craft.

As Brunson entered the 2018 NBA Draft as the National College Basketball Player of the Year, most scouts predicted the Villanova product would be a career saver. He lacked the athleticism and crude physical tools of other guards in his class. But Brunson has improved every year in the league and is coming off a season in which he hit career highs in points (16.3), assists (4.8), rebounds (3, 9) and in minutes (31.9). In the playoffs, he carried the Mavericks for most of a first-round win over the Jazz when Luka Doncic was out, and helped them reach the Western Conference Finals, scoring 21.6 points over 46.6% shooting in 18 playoff games.

“I think what he is is an important NBA player,” 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 gradually improve throughout their careers, especially throughout their best years, and he’s just starting to hit his peak.

“I have no doubt that he will continue to grow and improve because he is so serious. Fools don’t improve. Serious players continue to improve because it’s important to them. .

His career so far in the NBA and his time at Villanova confirms this. Brunson is an improving player. He wins. The Knicks, who last won a playoff series in 2013 and have made the playoffs only once in the past nine seasons, could use more players like him.

“I can’t stress enough that his serious approach to playing, improving and winning is absolutely what a team needs after a tough year,” Van Gundy said. “You don’t find too many of these guys out there in free agency that you can get. These were unique circumstances.

“I think he was very, very happy in Dallas, but it’s an incredible opportunity for him to challenge himself to be a starting point guard in this league every night. I think he’s going to react exceptionally well.