Jay Wright remembers the look. It was a steely glare of determination without fear.
Kevin Durant was getting criticized for Team USA’s struggles in the Tokyo Olympic Games last summer, and Wright, the head coach of the team, didn’t think it was fair. But fair or unfair didn’t matter to Durant. His whole focus was on winning. Everything else was noise. The pressure didn’t impact him at all.
That reminded Wright of one of his former players: Jalen Brunson, the Knicks’ new point guard.
“I look at that same deep confidence and focus that Jalen has. You only see it in a few guys, and he has it,” Wright, who retired as Villanova’s coach in April, told The Post in a phone interview on Wednesday.
The 25-year-old Brunson, Wright said, has never shied away from a challenge or been scared of an individual opponent. Brunson has won at every level—from high school to college to the professional ranks. He led Team USA’s U-19 team to the World Cup title in 2015 and was the MVP of the tournament. He won two national championships at Villanova and was the National Player of the Year as a junior. He helped the Mavericks reach the NBA Western Conference finals this past year while taking his game to another level, averaging 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the postseason.
“He has absolutely no fear of failure — none. I think he believes he’s going to do whatever I got to do to win, and if I fail, I’m going to come back harder and work harder and make up for it,” Wright said. “He’s just got a belief that way, and he knows that he lives that way. If you play with him, coach with him, in those times, crunch time, you look in his eyes and see there is no fear — none — of any situation, of any player. He has a great confidence.”
Now, Brunson is entering into a new world, as the Knicks’ point guard, a job in New York sports up there with being the Yankees’ center fielder and the quarterback of the Giants.
He has a big contract, a four-year, $104 million deal, and sky-high expectations to go with it. He is expected to fill a decades-long void at the position. A bull’s-eye will be on his back.
“There’s nothing like the pressure of being expected to deliver in New York City as a professional, especially at Madison Square Garden. There’s probably not much comparison to that in sports,” Wright said. “[But] I don’t think anything in New York is going to affect [him]positively even praise which can be difficult to deal with in New York also, or criticism.
“He is very comfortable in having all that pressure on him,” Wright later added. “When Luka [Doncic] was out [for Dallas], he was very comfortable taking on that responsibility in the playoffs. But he’s really smart and he really knows that he needs good players around him, too. His basketball IQ is off the charts. He will look at the game like a coach and a general manager. His ego doesn’t get in the way. But he’ll never shy from the responsibility. He loves it.”
Wright was in touch with Brunson during his brief foray into free agency. Brunson, Wright said, didn’t want to leave the Mavericks. He enjoyed playing with Doncic. Dallas drafted and developed him. But he felt drawn to the Knicks, due to the numerous — and well-documented — ties that included team president (Leon Rose), coach (Tom Thibodeau) and his father, Rick, who was recently hired as an assistant on Thibodeau’s staff.
“Go with your heart,” Wright told him.
This move, however, wasn’t just about family. Yes, it played a role. Of course it did. But so did the possibilities Brunson saw with the Knicks, for himself and the franchise. He has won at every level and stage of his career.
“He’s going there because he believes they can win,” Wright said. “I think making this move solidifies what Leon and Thibs are trying to build there, with real hard-nosed, tough but professional guys that are really committed to winning. I think this move’s kind of a statement move. Other free agents will see that.”