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Villanova recruit Jalen Brunson has basketball in his blood

The ascent of the McDonald's All-American has been a long time coming.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

He used to dress the way his father did when they were in New York. If Rick Brunson wore a tie, so did young Jalen Brunson. Their attire matched. Their briefcases were prepped the same. The father watched his son at an early age. Basketball flowed through his son's blood.

And Rick saw it. His wife, Sandra, would always bring Jalen to her mother's house when Rick played for the Knicks in 2000-01. Four-year-old Jalen would always be caught in the kitchen, flicking his tiny wrist like his pop, measuring each shot on a mini Nerf hoop.

Swish. Again. Swoosh. Another. Nylon. Until he got tired out, even though it seemed like he never would. It was all about preparation for the Brunsons. About winning. About carving their way through the tough times. And at 18 years young, Jalen Brunson is one of the winningest players in Chicago high school hoops history.

Villanova's next star guard is only adding to the success they've shown in seasons past: a desire to win at his core. And he has the skill to be the next great Villanova guard, from a program that has a history of only producing the best.

"We talk about winning," Rick Brunson said in a phone interview with SB Nation back in January. "He's closing in on 100 wins in high school. He's only lost 19 times. Winning brings greatness. And to go to Villanova and add to what they already have will be phenomenal for him. And to compete for a national championship will be great. There are only 13 players (in Chicago hoops history) that have won 100 games. Derrick Rose has 94, Jahlil Okafor, 92. That shows those are a lot of wins."

Jalen Brunson said he doesn't remember the first time he picked up a real basketball, but "he knows there was always a basketball in his hands." He said it was meant for him. That learning from his father was preparation for his destiny. It was his calling. It was what the Brunsons did.

But winning and the success that comes with it is something he inherited from his dad. It's a mentality that thrives in his family. There are only a few things Jalen Brunson wanted to achieve before he left Adlai E. Stevenson High School: win a state championship and to be the 14th person to win 100 high school games. He accomplished both.

Brunson has worked for all he has. Like father, like son.

"Winning comes from how much failure (my family) has had," Jalen Brunson said. "I know my dad. It took him a while to get to the NBA and everything wasn't just a given for us. He had to work for a lot. And me, at a young age, I'm willing to work like he did. It's the resilience we had. It's always a challenge. We continue to prove (people) wrong. The factor of someone saying you can't do something, you always want to prove them wrong."

★★★

The Brunsons' level of winning isn't restricted to the hardwoods of Lincolnshire, Illinois, or the mean streets of New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Jalen was born, but their triumphs in athletics do tell part of their story.

Rick Brunson was a star at Temple, the only McDonald's All-American from the state of Massachusetts where he attended Salem High. He went on to make the NBA and played for various teams for nine seasons until 2006. Sandra Brunson starred on the volleyball courts at Temple, where Jalen Brunson's parents met.

And their vision for him was understood well by his next coach. Jay Wright saw the potential in Jalen Brunson, just as his parents did. But they did so by searching extensively for the right school.

"He's an old soul," Wright said of his incoming recruit following a game. "His mom was a college athlete. Dad: old school, old school, even though he played in the '90s, it should have been in the '60s. They both looked at college like: where is he going to go to school, get the best education and be a part of a great basketball program ... the sophistication of Sandra and Rick allowed Jalen to look at it this way as opposed to a normal kid."

Brunson

Credit: Mike DiNovo, USA Today Sports

Though basketball is his main endeavor, there is much more to Jalen Brunson.

He can conquer a classroom. His charm has won him over plenty of friends in the Chicago suburbs. And he loves his family more than ever. Outside of his immense talent on the court, he's a brother to Erica, a son to Rick and Sandra, and companion to many.

He's as much of a people's person as he is a floor general or a wizard handling the rock and patrolling the floor.

"He's a wonderful friend and has a great group of friends that have been tight since we've moved here," Rick Brunson said. "He's an unbelievable brother. He's funny, kind of a comedian. He's intense though. He has passion whether it's in school or on the court. He's always competing and we've talked to him about that. Always compete and always be the best at it."

Outside of basketball, like many players, it's his family that motivates him to do better. The Brunsons are one. What one member of the family feels, another can relate to. They are one unit. Athletes. Students. Friends.

And Jalen Brunson's attitude reflects onto his family and vice versa. If one Brunson does well, they all celebrate. It's a mantra they all live.

"My family is a bunch of hardworking people," Jalen Brunson said. "It's just hardworking in everything: athletics, the classroom, the work, everything. If you are going to put your mind to something you have to do it. We live that."

But it's one quality that he has, Rick Brunson said, that overwhelms them all. Every good leader is an equally good listener. And it's something that Rick has tried to convey for a long time.

"The best thing that he does is that he listens," Rick said. "And I've talked about him for years. You can't get into what people write about you good or bad. He had 56 points in a high school game, that's unrealistic. It happens. That's what high school players do. In college you are going to play a role. And you have to be the best at that role. The only people you have to please is the Villanova basketball coach and team. We have steps as we go along and the next step is to win a state title."

★★★

Miles away, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the city that made Rick Brunson and gave him the initiative to teach his son the game, sat Jalen Brunson's new paradise. Villanova University. Guard U. His new home away from homes, learning from his temporary on-campus father: Jay Wright.

Jay Wright coaching the Villanova Wildcats during their loss to N.C. State in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament

Credit: Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports

Wright has known Rick Brunson since he was in high school, he said, and has known Jalen since he was young. And it was how Jalen Brunson was off the court, the way he measures a shot as much as his studies, how he reveres his family and his involvement with them, and his natural ability to come off as a "team player" that brought him to Villanova.

"He takes AP Calculus," Wright said with a wry chuckle. "Where he was going to go to school and what type of education he got was important to him. We try to find guys like that. We will search the country for a unique guy, with an old soul that is really interested in getting a great education and wants to be a great basketball player and wants to be a part of a team."

Jalen Brunson, who was nominated to be a McDonald's All-American, will be the first guard since Maalik Wayns that'll have that honor that has gone to Villanova. He's the second player from Lake County to have the honor. And he and Rick Brunson are the fifth father-son duo to have the honor.

He's ranked amongst the top-30 players by every recruiting service and is considered a five-star guard by ESPN, the No. 1 player in Illinois and No. 2 at his position countrywide.

But it wasn't the recent surges of scoring that enticed Jalen Brunson about Villanova. Like many recruits that walk the courts of the ol' Pavilion, it was Wright. The Wildcats undeniable leader and mentor enthused the guard. The familial aspects of the ‘Cats catered to Jalen Brunson's needs.

"Obviously they're a guard oriented program and that opened my eyes but it was the family aspect of it," Jalen Brunson said when asked about what led him to Villanova. "They're all there for each other on and off the court and I want a family away from my own family. ... My high school coach had my back all the time, we could go to the gym and talk about things besides basketball and I think coach Wright will be that way for me."

Rick Brunson called it "his will to win." It's his uncharacteristic passion that drives him to be a leader on and off the court. He said that his son will "be a coach on the floor," something that directly stems for his admiration of the people he plays with and for.

"What sold him on Villanova is that he got here and he got along with the team," Wright said. "He wants to be a part of a team. He didn't just want to go and be the man somewhere. He's the kind of guy that he has the confidence that's he's going to play wherever he goes. But he wanted to be somewhere where he was a part of something."

★★★

At his core, it's still winning that drives Jalen Brunson. It's what he knows outside of being an "old soul" as Wright has coined him. It's what motivates him outside of his family, outside of the AP Calculus classroom he clings to, outside of what's driven him this far.

He still has work to do. Rick Brunson calls himself "Jalen's toughest critic" because he doesn't look at him the way "you guys write about him." There's much more in store for Jalen Brunson outside of Stevenson, past Villanova.

Maybe an eventual stint in the NBA, like his father.

"I see so much room for improvement," Rick Brunson said. "He has a big window, a big ceiling. It's flattering to see what's written about him and how he scores, it's great. It's great for me, my wife, my daughter, but one thing about us, we still reach for greatness."

Jalen Brunson has started every high school game in his lofty career at Stevenson, but Rick Brunson said that he won't start at Villanova, something he knew going in. Four other schools guaranteed him that he would and he picked the program that told him he wouldn't.

Wright said "his parents know he's going to play a lot here" but neither matters to Jalen Brunson. He's sure he'd be perfect in whatever role his new coach has for him.

"Obviously everyone wants to start that plays a sport," Jalen Brunson said. "But, I would be perfect (in whatever role I get off the bench). I've done it playing USA basketball. I have to come in and be a contributor. Being a starter is just a title. Once you are in the game you play as hard as you can. I'll impact as much as I can."

There's been no other school from Lake County, Illinois, that's won a state title. Jalen Brunson said his individual goals would remain in high school. He wanted a 4A state title and this year, there was no Jabari Parker or Okafor to hold him back.

He said he asks himself the same question daily: "How good do you want to be?" It's what makes it easier to put his individual goals aside and focus on team concepts. When he takes his first steps at the Pavilion, finally trading the emerald Stevenson sashes for the claws of the ‘Cats, Jalen Brunson will do so with two mentors.

Jalen Brunson posing prior to the McDonald's All-American Game in April

Credit: Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports

He'll have Wright. The guy he knows will get on him about always being better and playing to his potential. And he'll maintain his biggest motivation. The first old soul that taught the second how to be a Philly tough guard, and the man that taught him about work ethic and hardship, and the pitfalls that come with a career playing ball.

Rick Brunson will always be there to push his son. He's the second of a generation of hardwood stars. And his pop is the key to Villanova and Philadelphia's next great guard.

Jalen Brunson always wanted to play basketball. It's in his blood. It filled him from the day he wore a matching suit with his dad on the way to Madison Square Garden. Basketball was in him when he chucked nerf balls at the plastic net in his grandma's living room while his dad laced up at the Mecca. This sport was him, from age four to now as he enters the next chapter in his career. It was his father's dream that got passed cross-court to his kid.

And every son looks up to his dad. Even in the Brunsons' case, it's always been the same. Like father. Like son.

"He always motivates me in some way," Jalen Brunson admitted. "If it's talking trash to me, or a newspaper clipping of the team we are going to play next. He always finds a way to motivate me."