Jalen Brunson was already considered a high-major college basketball prospect before Stevenson High School faced a Whitney Young team featuring Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor and Georgetown-bound forward Paul White in the semifinals of the Illinois state playoffs in March. Stevenson would lose the game, but Brunson stole the show in scoring 56 points on 16-of-30 shooting from the field. Ever since, his name has been in the discussion for the top point guard in the class of 2015.
Brunson is now up to the No. 15 player in his class according to Rivals, and on Wednesday he'll announce where he plans to attend college. Brunson had five official visits scheduled, but after making to trips to Illinois and Villanova he decided to forgo seeing Michigan State, Temple and Purdue. It's either the Fighting Illini or the Wildcats for Brunson, and he'll end the anticipation after speaking to both head coaches, Illinois' John Groce and 'Nova's Jay Wright, on Tuesday.
Brunson lives and plays high school ball in the northern suburbs of Chicago, but he has ties to Philadelphia through his father, Rick, who starred at Temple and later played for a host of NBA teams. While it won't be talked about when Jalen takes to the podium to announce whether he's choosing Illinois or Villanova, his father's involvement has made this one of the strangest recruitments of the year.
Temple was long considered the favorites for Brunson because of rumors head coach Fran Dunphy would make Rick an assistant to secure his son. That was before Rick was charged with criminal sexual assault and battery in July for his involvement with a massage therapist during an appointment booked under the name of former New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing.
The bizarre incident threw a wrench into Brunson's recruitment and opened the door for Illinois and Villanova. At either school, Brunson would be the centerpiece of the 2015 class. Needless to say, there's a lot riding on his decision.
Brunson is a lefty standing at 6'2, 180 pounds. He isn't an elite athlete, but he makes up for it with a craftiness that goes well beyond his years. Brunson can spring himself loose with a variety of tricks, from dribble hesitation moves to up-and-unders around the basket. He knows how to use his body as a shield to protect the ball, and his court vision and passing ability leave no doubt that he's a true point guard.
Brunson also plays with a confidence that only underlines his talent. He's a capable and willing three-point shooter, able to pull up from the top of the key or the wings at a moment's notice. He can tend to fall in love with his own shot, but sometimes it's hard not to when the opposing defense can't stop you.
The pros and cons of Illinois
Illinois had a tortured history with local recruits even before Cliff Alexander pulled the fake-out heard from Chicago to Champaign to Lawrence a year ago. Alexander's hat trick burned Illini fans in a deep and personal way, and the sting is unlikely to wear off until Groce can nab his first top-20 recruit.
As a program, Illinois hasn't been particularly successful since reaching the national title game behind Dee Brown and Deron Williams in 2005. Illinois hasn't advanced past the Round of 32 since, and it's missed the NCAA Tournament four of the last seven seasons, including this past season.
Groce is starting to turn things around, already locking down a pair of top-100 players in the class of 2015 in Chicago small forward D.J. Williams and suburban guard Aaron Jordan. Groce also has Illinois in the mix for top-20 big men Carlton Bragg and Elijah Thomas, as well as Dallas point guard Jawun Evans. Evans is the No. 26 player in the class and is thought to be leaning toward the Illini. Should Brunson select 'Nova on Wednesday, Groce will be under even more pressure to nab Evans.
Illinois' biggest advantage with Brunson might be the playing time that will be immediately available. With point guard Tracy Abrams set to graduate, Brunson would likely start from day one. He'd be surrounded by a quality group of players that includes Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Aaron Cosby and Leron Black.
The pros and cons of Villanova
It only takes one look at the Wildcats' guard history to realize why playing under Wright is so appealing. From Kyle Lowry to Randy Foye to Scottie Reynolds, Villanova has proven it knows how to develop scoring guards. Brunson fits that mold perfectly.
The trouble is, the Wildcats already have a point guard who will still be in place when Brunson is set to arrive on campus. That would be Ryan Arcidiacono, who was solid last season for Villanova as a sophomore. Would Brunson mind playing off the ball or coming off the bench as a freshman?
No matter how much Illinois wants to play up Brunson's local ties, it's essentially undeniable that Villanova has been the more successful program over the last 10 years. Jay Wright has led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament nine times over that period, advancing to one Final Four, two Elite Eights and four Sweet 16s.
For as good as the Wildcats have been under Wright, the Big East isn't what it used to be. Brunson will have to decide if the overturn that has taken place in the conference over the last few seasons is enough to sway him to Champaign and the Big Ten.