On paper, it’s a quality move. The Knicks filled a huge void at point guard by agreeing to Jalen Brunson’s four-year, $104 million deal, adding a rising player just entering his prime.
But Jeff Van Gundy said he sees it as more than that. He said that he believes he is a signing to improve the team’s culture, that the Knicks brought in a player who will not only bring more scoring, plays and defense, but also raise the bar for everyone around him.
“[Brunson] he brings a level of competitive spirit, intelligence and seriousness that any team in this league absolutely needs,” Van Gundy, a former Knicks coach and ESPN analyst, told The Post. “There aren’t a lot of really good, serious competitors out there, and I think the Knicks should be very, very happy and proud to have one of them.
“You’ll find out what you need to do to give your team the best chance to win, and whatever. If that means scoring more, great. If that means driving more, great, creating more shots or facing guys who do create. I love its versatility.”
Van Gundy prefaced the interview by admitting a shade of bias. He has known Brunson, 25, since he was 3 years old. Van Gundy coached Brunson’s father, Rick, first when he was in high 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 in Villanova to a breakout star this past postseason. Van Gundy knows the work ethic that has shaped Brunson and the dedication with which he approaches his craft.
When Brunson entered the NBA draft in 2018 as the National Player of the Year in college basketball, most scouts projected that the Villanova product would be a backup in his career. He lacked the athleticism and raw physical tools of other guards in his class. But Brunson has improved each year in the league, and he’s coming off a season in which he posted career-high points (16.3), assists (4.8), rebounds (3.9) and minutes (31.9). In the playoffs, he led the Mavericks through most of their first-round series win over the Jazz while Luka Doncic was out, and helped them to the Western Conference finals, scoring 21.6 points. shooting 46.6 percent in 18 playoff games.
“I think what he is is an important player 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 get better, and serious players get better gradually throughout their careers, particularly during their best years, and he’s just starting to hit his prime.
“I have no doubt that he will continue to grow and improve because he is very serious. Fools don’t get better. Serious players continue to improve because it’s important to them.”
His career so far in the NBA, and his previous time at Villanova, back him up. Brunson is a player who improves. He wins. The Knicks, who last won a playoff series in 2013 and made the postseason just once in the past nine seasons, could use more players like him.
“I can’t stress enough that his serious approach to the game, and getting better and winning, is absolutely what a team needs that is coming off a challenging year,” Van Gundy said. “You don’t find a lot of those guys in free agency that you can get. These were unique circumstances.
“I think he was very, very happy in Dallas, but this is an amazing opportunity for him to also challenge himself to be a starting point guard in this league every night. I think he is going to respond exceptionally well.”