Like many freshmen starting on varsity, Stevenson High School point guard Jalen Brunson has created a buzz. Unlike most, however, one-third of the Bulls' potential roster attended his game Tuesday night.
The presence of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans in the stands may have partially diverted the focus of the crowd's attention, but by the end of the contest, all eyes were trained on the contest itself. Unheralded Stevenson knocked off the the preseason No. 2 team in the state, conference rival Warren, 44-43, in what was the still-young Illinois high school basketball season's biggest upset thus far.
While senior sharpshooter Michael Fleming -- an elite student in the classroom, reportedly considering attending academically-oriented Colgate -- was Stevenson's high scorer and made what would eventually be the game-winning shot, the Bulls players present to see "Little Rick," as well as the rest of the audience, came away extremely impressed with Brunson. One former Bull, Dickey Simpkins, was also in attendance and as his AAU coach, offered a unique perspective on the budding star.
"I really didn't have any expectations for Stevenson's ability to make that a close game or win it, but I did know that Jalen was going to be fine out there because of his poise and composure. Obviously he knows a lot of those guys because he plays in our program and he sees those guys all the time, and the fact that Jalen has worked out with those guys -- he plays up in our program -- I knew his confidence level and his poise would kick in," said Simpkins, who also coaches Division I-bound Warren seniors Darius Paul (the 6-foot-8 younger brother of Illinois guard Brandon Paul is headed for Western Michigan) and Nathan Boothe (the younger brother of Stanford women's player Sarah Boothe is a 6-foot-9 center who will attend Toledo next fall) in his NLP (Next Level Performance) program. "You're not going to rattle Jalen and that's pretty impressive for a kid as a freshman playing against the No. 2 team in the state, a team that lost in the state championship last year. Playing against them as a freshman in this early part of the season and him being as poised as he was, I pretty much expected that he was going to play at that level."
Brunson scored 14 points on the evening, an impressive total for a freshman. However, the way he played was more impactful than anything recorded in the final statistics. The 5-foot-11 southpaw ran his team flawlessly, played extremely unselfishly, picked his spots to score -- showcasing a savvy mid-range game, a deft shooting touch and range on his jumper -- and displayed some eye-popping dribble moves to excite the crowd.
More significantly, as Simpkins emphasized, he seemed unnaturally calm throughout the whole contest. It was a bit like watching a flashback.
"He does a little bit of everything that his dad did," said Simpkins, whose NBA career overlapped with Jalen's father's, Rick, now a Bulls assistant coach. "He resembles his dad to the fullest -- the left hand, the great control of the game, the craftiness and the skill set to be able to shoot the mid-range, being able to see the court and deliver it, distribute the ball -- he plays just like his dad."
For even the most ardent NBA fans, that might not seem like glowing praise initially, as the elder Brunson was considered the prototypical journeyman throughout his nine-team, eight-year career, which included two stints with the Bulls and crossing paths with head coach Tom Thibodeau in New York and Houston. But Brunson garnered tremendous respect among his peers for his determination and ability to adapt and knowledge of the game. Something developed in an accomplished amateur career that included being the co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game (with Chris Webber, the college teammate of another Jalen, Jalen Rose) before playing for Hall of Fame coach John Chaney at Temple University with two fellow future longtime pros, Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, now a Philadelphia 76ers assistant.
"I'll just tell you this," said the usually loquacious Brunson. "I'm trying to teach him how to be self-motivated and work hard."
While he's refreshingly modest about his son's potential, it's obvious that Jalen has a bright future. It's too early to predict the future, but Simpkins is cautiously optimistic about his prospects.
"I think Jalen's got a lot of upside because I can imagine him getting a little bit taller. He's got good body structure, where if he continues to develop natural strength and then if he starts to to do physical strength training, he's going to become stronger. As he gets older, his athleticism should keep improving and he should develop more quickness, so I see a lot of upside for him once those things start kicking in and add to his ability, knowing the game, his basketball I.Q., feel for the game and his skill set, he has a tremendous quickness," opined Simpkins. "I think Jalen is going to be a really sought-after player for his class when he gets ready to graduate. I kind of look at Jalen right now like the kid at North Carolina sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, a preseason All-American, according to several media outlets. He's a young version of Marshall. I think Jalen can be like him, but even better because I think Jalen can really shoot the ball better than he can. But I visualize Jalen being that kind of player and every Division I coach wanting a player like that."
Still, the Brunson -- whose mother played volleyball at Temple, where she met Rick, her eventual husband -- is likely to stay grounded, as he gets basketball advice not only from former pros like his father and Simpkins, but from current players, such as Noah. The elder Brunson appreciates the wisdom passed down from Noah -- the son of a former professional athlete himself -- and cites one piece of knowledge as "the best advice" anyone has given Jalen: "Humble yourself or the game will humble you."
"I think that he has a chance to be a hell of a player, but when you're in ninth grade and you're getting a lot of attention, I always tell young players that it really doesn't mean anything. It's all about your character at the end of the day, how hard you're willing to work because you see it all the time," said Noah, who wasn't considered an elite-level prospect coming out of high school. "Guys start off top players in the country from a young age, get all this attention and they're not focused on getting better. If your mindset is about getting better, then it's hard to make it at this level."
Brunson is a long way from the professional ranks -- let alone college, as he'll matriculate to college in the fall of 2015 -- but with the extended network of legitimate advisers surrounding him, good genes and precocious ability, he's in excellent hands, especially if it's assumed that his father's determination was inherited. For now, however, the next four years of basketball at Stevenson should see plenty of special moments like the one witnessed Tuesday night.