Even though Deandre Ayton helped lead the Suns to the NBA Finals last year, lingering debates in the NBA media remain about Phoenix missing the chance to draft Luka Doncic instead of Deandre Ayton in 2018.
But Mikal Bridges said at Suns’ practice on Saturday Phoenix missed the opportunity to draft his former Villanova teammate, Jalen Brunson, that same year.
“Credit to Dallas, their staff and their everybody up top knowing that they got a steal,” Bridges said. “He went so far, I thought Phoenix was gonna get him.But he went far back and they got him. I knew from there, Mavs, they’re gonna see, and JB’sa one-on-one guy anyway.”
Bridges isn’t surprised Brunson has emerged as the NBA’s seventh-best playoff scorer (averaging 27.8 points on 48.4% shooting) for the Mavericks in the playoffs.
Many teams didn’t see that in Brunson when he was drafted four years ago.
Top-seeded Phoenix and fourth seed Dallas open the Western Conference semifinals beginning Monday in Phoenix.
“It’s great to be competing, but it’s great just to be here with him and it’s just dope how we’re at in life,” Bridges said. “Four years ago winning a championship and then now battling in the playoffs is pretty dope. ”
Bridges believed Brunson’s résumé — earning National Player of the Year honors and helping lead the Wildcats to two NCAA titles in three years (2016, 2018) — proved his stock should have made him a much-higher pick than a second-round, 33rd selection .
The Suns selected another left-handed point guard, Élie Okobo, two spots ahead of Brunson. They took Zhaire Smith at No. 16.
Now, Okobo is back playing professionally in his native France after spending two seasons in Phoenix and being waived in November 2020.
Smith was traded on draft night by the Suns — along with a 2021 first-round pick acquired from the Miami Heat — to acquire Bridges, who was picked 10th by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Smith last played for the Memphis Grizzlies’ G League team Memphis Hustle in 2021.
“What (Brunson) was doing in college, you could sit in the paint, you could help, go over, help. In the league, there’s so much space and it goes toward his game,” Bridges said. “I knew he’d be a better NBA player than he was a college player, which is crazy to say.”
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Brunson is the Mavericks’ second-best player and scorer behind Luka Doncic (29 points per game) this postseason. He was third in that category for Dallas before they traded center Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline on Feb. 10.
“He’s playing with a damned superstar,” Bridges said about Brunson playing alongside Doncic.
“Dude is All-NBA since he got in the damned league and he has the ball a lot. You’re going to have to take a step down, so it’s tough. And I know he knows if he was the dude with the ball” more in his hands he’s gonna dominate, and I know that as well.”
After Doncic suffered a left calf strain in the Mavericks’ regular-season finale win over the San Antonio Spurs on April 10, Brunson dominated the fifth seed Utah Jazz in Games 1-3 before Doncic returned in the fourth game of their first-round series . Brunson scored game-highs of 24, 41 (a career high), and 31 points in leading Dallas to a 2-1 series lead.
“He’s been hoopin’ all year. And when Luka came out it just unlocked another beast, unlocked another part of him, which I know,” Bridges said. “Luka being out is a great thing that happened for the Mavs for the first couple games.”
Brunson also had game-high seven and eight rebounds, respectively, in the first two games, then averaged 23.6 points after Doncic returned for the series’ final three games to eliminate Utah, 4-2.
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“It’s just anybody in front of him, it don’t matter. I just remember watching that Utah series and seeing guys who’s matched up on him,” Bridges said about Brunson.
“I feel like there was really not too many people out there who can guard him, for sure, just anybody on that court. I know JB That’s not discrediting anybody on Utah, I just know JB and I know how much of a killer he is, and now playing how he gets more opportunities how he’s supposed to play. …
“I feel like nobody on that court can stop him and he’s doing what exactly I thought he was supposed to do.”
Brunson was overshadowed by 13 college one-and-dones among the 2018 draft’s 30 first-round picks. That includes eight in the top 10 such as all-stars Trae Young and Doncic, who was a 19-year-old Euroleague MVP, Phoenix’s No. 1 overall pick Ayton, and then-high school senior Anfernee Simons, taken by the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I don’t understand that,” Bridges said. “I know (Brunson) went second round and 30-something pick and … I don’t know.
“If you want to say it’s his size or whatever, but I think sometimes picking 18-year-olds who averages six points a game or something like that and it’s different (for) a dude who carries a whole load and takes the team to a national championships and wins it for them, I’d rather pick that (latter) guy.”
Brunson produced solid stats during his first three years in the league (10.3 points on 48.5% FG, and 3.3 assists per game), but not like the ones he’s recently produced.
In the final year of his rookie contract, Brunson improved to career-highs 16.3 points, 84% free throw shooting, 58.3% true shooting, 4.8 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 31.9 minutes played per contest during the regular season.
His numbers could command up to an estimated $20-25 million dollars per year in the free agency market this summer.
“He’s going to make a lot of money,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said after its Game 2 win over Utah. “I don’t know if he needs an agent, but I’m gonna put my name in the hat.”
Brunson’s father and former NBA player Rick Brunson told ESPN, “We’ve got to figure out if Dallas wants him. Not words. Ain’t no discount. So don’t put it on us. Don’t tell me you love me Show me.”
But Jalen is more modest just focusing on playing, not concerned about his rising stock ordering a lucrative offer soon.
“Not at all. Not at all. I promise you,” Brunson said. “My dad, we’ll joke about it, but my family knows that I don’t want to talk about it until the season’s over. That’s really not going to help me right now. …
“I know it’s a weird situation. People don’t believe that I don’t talk about it, but it’s not a topic of conversation until I guess we get there.”
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