Why Knicks are investing so much in free-agent Jalen Brunson

Why Knicks are investing so much in free-agent Jalen Brunson

- in NBA Basketball

By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

In the winter of 2021, about a year after coming in to help his friend/partner Leon Rose run the Knicks, William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley was talking to an associate about the duo’s plans for the franchise. 

“I told Brock,” Wesley told the associate, referring to Brock Aller, a friend the Knicks had recently hired to serve as their chief strategist, “that the only way he and I would have an issue is if he didn’t have enough assets to draft D.J. Wagner by the time he entered the draft.” 

Wagner at the time was one of the country’s top sophomore prospects. More importantly, he was the son of Dajuan Wagner, the former NBA lottery pick whom Rose had represented as an agent. More importantly than that, he was the grandson of Milt Wagner, another former NBA player and a longtime friend of both Rose and Wesley, who, like Wagner, are both South Jersey natives.

Wesley made clear to the associate that he was joking. But the point was clear. 

“Family is how we’re building this team,” he said. 

Knicks pursuing Jalen Brunson with four-year, $110M offer

The Knicks are reportedly all-in on signing the former Mavericks point guard, trading Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks to Detroit to clear cap space. They can now offer Brunson a four-year, $110 million deal. Nick Wright explains why New York going all-in on Brunson is an “awful idea.”

It took some time, but we’ve finally seen the length that he and Rose are willing to go when it comes to fulfilling this pledge. Sure, they spent their first two-plus years bringing in names from their respective pasts. Rose’s former client was named head coach. The roster was populated with players from Kentucky — a school coached by John Calipari, another longtime friend of Wesley’s — and Creative Arts Agency, where Rose previously worked. 

But those were friends. Colleagues. Partners. Family is something different, something you value more than anything, and there’s only one NBA family outside of the Wagners that Rose and Wesley consider their own. That would be the family of Rick Brunson, the former NBA point guard who also made his home in South Jersey and just happened to have been Rose’s first NBA client — and who the Knicks recently hired as an assistant coach.

It’s important to keep all this in mind when breaking down the Knicks’ recent string of decisions. By now you’re no doubt up to date with the news: The Knicks have spent the past week clearing salaries so that they can sign Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson to a near-max deal, likely, according to sources, in the four-year, $110 million range.

Jalen, of course, is the son of Rick Brunson. He’s also a former client of Rose’s and is currently represented by a group of CAA agents that includes Rose’s son, Sam. The contract can’t become official until Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, when the NBA’s free agency moratorium is lifted. But that’s just red tape. The deal is done. 

It’s worth pointing out that Brunson is a wonderful player, one who will make the Knicks better and who is very well the best point guard they’ve had since Stephon Marbury. He can create off the bounce for himself and for others (he averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists per game last season) and, despite his diminutive size (6-foot-1), he is one of the league’s better finishers at the rim. 

This, combined with his smooth 3-point stroke (37.3 3P%), makes him a tough cover and, statistically, one of the league’s better pick-and-roll practitioners. All of this is why he was able to explode in the first round of last season’s playoffs and lead the Mavericks to a pair of wins over the Jazz despite an injured Luka Dončić watching from the bench. Oh, and Brunson doesn’t turn 26 until August, meaning he’s just entering his prime and is about five years younger than the players to whom the Knicks have historically handed nine-figure deals. 

But it’s also worth highlighting just how far the Knicks are going in order to bring in Brunson. Because it’s not just money they’re giving up. Going back to last week, the Knicks have surrendered the 11th pick in the draft and attached six future second-round picks to clear unwanted contracts, and $6 million in cash, all to sign Brunson. This is the sort of maneuvering we typically see from teams chasing players with All-NBA nods on their résumé, not ones who’ve never averaged 17 points per game. 

There are two ways to read all this. One is that Brunson is young and good and on the rise and that an annual salary of around $27.5 million is the going rate these days for players who fit that description. There’s also the possibility that the Knicks, operating with more information regarding Brunson’s makeup and psyche than anyone else, see something in him that others might not, just like they did with Immanuel Quickley. They plucked the former Kentucky guard with the 25th pick in the 2020 draft, despite him being widely projected as a second-round pick, and he has turned out to be a revelation. 

But there’s a more cynical way to read this, too. It was never said out loud, but when the Knicks handed the reins to a power agent and a power broker, it was understood by everyone around the team and the NBA that the main reason for doing it was so that they could one day recruit and attract shiny stars. You remember the names: Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard.

Yet here we are, nearly three years later, and the Knicks are nowhere closer to contention, nowhere closer to relevance. They might as well be on a hamster wheel — and there’s no exit on the horizon. 

Instead, Rose and Wesley have seemingly pivoted and fallen back on what they know best, on what helped them both reach their respective heights. Family is their bet. The Knicks’ future depends on whether this wager is one being placed because Rose and Wesley know Brunson better than most or simply because Brunson is a member of that family.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman. 

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