Dallas Mavericks rookie point guard Jalen Brunson filled in admirably during the absence of J.J. Barea and Dennis Smith Jr., but with the Mavericks back court healthy again, he finds himself out of Head Coach Rick Carlisle’s rotation.
Brunson started eight games in December with Smith nursing a sprained right wrist. He has since received a DNP-Coaches Decision in three of the Mavericks last four games, including the final game before Smith’s return.
For most teams this wouldn’t be a discussion. When the starting point guard returns, the player considered the 3rd best point guard on the team (4th if you consider Devin Harris a point guard) will return to an extremely limited role. That’s not usually the case in Dallas.
Rick Carlisle has been known to play three point guards at the same time off the bench. The Mavericks best lineup during the 2017-18 season was a three-guard lineup featuring Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell. Harris, Barea and Ferrell are considered traditional point guards. That lineup had a +22.8 net rating, according to advanced stats on NBA.com.
Harris and Barea are still firmly in the Mavericks rotation, but Ferrell joined the Sacramento Kings over the summer.
The Mavericks addressed Ferrell’s departure in the second round of the 2018 NBA draft when they selected Jalen Brunson with the 33rd overall pick. Brunson was the player of the year for men’s college basketball during the 2017-2018 season, and led Villanova to two National Championships in three years.
Most rookie point guards struggle, but Brunson’s collegiate experience and accomplishments led many to believe he could slide right into the void left by Ferrell’s exit.
Brunson’s first start came five games into his NBA career on Oct. 26 against Toronto. He spent the next six weeks in a limited role coming off the bench. On Dec. 8 he was thrust back into the starting lineup in place of Smith. Brunson scored 14 points while shooting 7-9 from the field in a win against Houston. He followed that performance with a 17 point, 4 assist, 3 rebound game against the Orlando Magic.
The Mavericks beat the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 12, before going on a six game losing streak. Brunson was replaced in the starting lineup by forward Maxi Kleber in a game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 26. Brunson went the next three games without seeing the floor, until playing in garbage time against the Thunder on New Years Eve.
Replacing Brunson with a big fits with what Carlisle has done all season. He still uses multiple point guards in some lineups, but he’s not as reliant on it as in year’s past. Even though the Mavericks best lineup last season was a small-ball lineup, he may have been forced into those lineups more than he’d like.
Last season, 6’8″ forward Dorian Finney-Smith was hurt for the majority of the season, and 6’7″ rookie Luka Doncic was playing in Spain for Real Madrid. Meanwhile, 6’11’ center, Deandre Jordan was with the L.A. Clippers.
The Mavericks played small last season because it worked, but also because they had to. The Mavericks are a more balanced team this year, and they are using more balanced lineups.
Brunson has a positive net rating this season. He has helped the Mavericks win games, but it’s probably best for him and the team if he spends his rookie year the way most rookies do – playing a limited role and learning from the veterans around him.
J.J. Barea is 34-years-old, and Devin Harris is 35. Those guys will eventually retire, and both are free agents at the end of this season. No matter what they choose to do this summer, the Mavericks can be confident Jalen Brunson is their backup point guard of the future.