SAN ANTONIO — At one point during a 25-minute interview session Sunday, the national player of the year paused and reminded listeners, “I actually have a personality.”
He stressed that he does, at times in his life, have fun.
He does, either simultaneously or otherwise, joke around.
Jalen Brunson — the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Villanova junior guard from Chicagoland whose father, Rick, a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant, played for John Chaney at Temple — is an emblem both of the modern-day more-than-one-and-done college player and of seriousness. He plays the game as if he can’t stop studying it, which he can’t. Basketball people persistently refer to the vast range of his capabilities and details, which extend, of course, to being whom Kansas Coach Bill Self called probably Villanova’s best post-up player.
He averages 32 minutes, 52 percent shooting, 41 percent three-point shooting, 80 percent free throw shooting, three rebounds, 4.67 assists, fewer than two turnovers, almost one steal and, of course, other things that numbers can’t manage to convey.
“I think I heard the analogy, he plays like an old man,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said Sunday, ahead of trying to solve Brunson and his considerable teammates in the Michigan-Villanova national title game Monday night. “He does. He plays like a guy that’s played forever and just outsmarts everybody.”
To become that person at 21 years 7 months old, Brunson applied seriousness, and having become that person, Brunson exudes seriousness. It’s not necessarily a boring seriousness, and certainly not a shy seriousness — he’s plenty chatty — but if you listen to him a while, it’s unsurprising what he did with the final question of the session. Asked whether he would rather make the kind of game-winning, three-point shot Kris Jenkins made for Villanova for its 2016 national title, or clinch a game with a defensive stop, a steal of some kind, Brunson did not hesitate.
“I would definitely want to see us get a stop on the defensive end,” he said, as a few remaining listeners all but snored.
No, seriously: A stop at the end would constitute improvement. Villanova struggled with defense earlier this year partly because its offense is so gaudy that it figured it could relax, a matter displeasing to a player who adores the grinding sounds of incremental improvement.
He can ramble on for a good while about how when the Wildcats “make sure we’re all together on defense, and then when we get stops on defense it makes the offense a lot easier, because we’re all playing together on defense, so obviously we’re going to trust each other on offense.” He said of his teammates, “We want everyone to be successful,” which could be hokum if Villanova’s play didn’t convey otherwise. Conveying his comprehension of the sport, he said, “I just know I can’t force things. I’ve just got to play the right way, make sure I’m making the right play at the right time.”
He said one certain defender this season had been the toughest.
He would not say whom.
“I definitely know the answer to that,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep that to myself. Because I don’t want anyone to know there’s any weakness in me. So I’m just definitely going to keep it to myself.” He said, “I know who’s going to make me struggle and I know who’s going to be a little bit easier to go against,” but he would not say who’s either.
The question of how he would guard himself thus faced a steep uphill:
“I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
“Now, he makes it very difficult,” Beilein said. “And he’s got good-enough size to how he posts up, or he dribble-posts up. And those are things that we see a little bit of. But usually the guy is not in a guard position. So he’s a really difficult matchup. That’s why I voted him as well the player of the year. And I don’t watch — like I said, I don’t watch a lot of college basketball. We recruited him. We know him. He’s a tremendous, tremendous basketball player. He’s a basketball player in so many respects.”
The No. 20 prospect from the class of 2015, per Rivals.com, has remained in college for a variety of reasons that include his seriousness about attaining a degree. “It’s definitely not normal,” he said. “Trust me, I want to be a pro. I would love to be a pro. I just feel like there’s a lot of things more important than just basketball, and I love basketball. It’s what I want to do for the longest time possible. It’s what I eat, it’s what I sleep about, it’s what I breathe, it’s in my lifestyle. I just really feel like there’s more important things than just putting the ball in the hoop.”
Advising younger players facing the one-and-done choice, he said, “First I would say, you’ve got to keep your circle close. Keep your circle real tight. There’s going to be a lot of people out there saying, ‘Go get money. You’re up there. Go get it.’ There’s a lot of guys who are drafted and end up not playing in the NBA. They get their money for their first whatever years, and end up going overseas or something like that.”
He does have a personality, he assures, even if, “But I mean, my personality, it shows you how much I am in love with this game of basketball. I love the game of basketball. I love being able to work every day. I love being able to watch film, be a student of the game. It may not show emotionally, but I just love that I’m able to do this.”