A lot has changed for Jalen Brunson in the past year. He’s on a new team and has returned to the city his father, Rick, played in. He got engaged to his high school sweetheart, and a few months later, his Villanova college jersey was retired. Then there’s everything Brunson has accomplished on the court, from averaging new career-highs this season to emerging as a certified NBA superstar. 

When the Knicks point guard pulls up to our office in Long Island City for his SLAM cover shoot, it’s clear that the man himself hasn’t changed since the last time we saw him. Brunson is still as focused as he was in Dallas—even sharper now. He’s figured out a way to not only elevate his own game, but help lead an entire franchise to new heights. Is this what he meant last year when he said that he didn’t think about how well he was doing…because he knew he could be doing even better? 

“You had to bring out the receipts, huh?” Brunson says when we bring it up on set. “I definitely have improved. I think it’s a mixture of work ethic, opportunity, fit and a little bit of luck, too. I mean, it’s a mixture of everything, but I’m honored to have the opportunity to go out there and play every other night and do what I can to help the team win. I just feel like whenever I step on the court, I have to be the best player I can be. And then we go back and watch [film] and [it’s like], how can I improve? And that’s just been my mindset since I can remember.” 

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We’ve told this story before: how his mother, Sandra, taught him early on how to set goals and envision what he wanted out of life, while his father, Rick, who had a nine-year yourneyman career in the League and played on the Knicks inin the ’90s, pushed him and showed what staying true to the grind really means.

The too-small-kid out of Stevenson High School became the best point guard in the country and then a champion at Villanova. When his opponents were bigger, faster and stronger in college, he’d think to himself, How can I be creative? How can I get my opponents off balance? 

Now, at 26 years old and in his fifth year in the L, Brunson is writing a new chapter. He’s become that much more dangerous, especially when he’s beating dudes off the dribble and hitting them with the dream shake. “How can I use my smarts versus their athleticism?” Brunson says. “I’ve always been that way and it’s worked. It’s gotten me here.”

“Here” is the mecca of basketball. New York City has produced point guards so undeniably smooth with the rock they’ve become cultural icons, from God Shammgod to the Jelly Fam. Brunson, who grew up in Cherry Hill (NJ) back when Rick was suiting up in blue and orange, isn’t super flashy or hitting three-to-the-dome celebrations in Madison Square Garden like Melo, but he’s been exactly what the Knicks have needed to bring them back to the playoffs this season. 

“Being the point guard of the Knicks is special. It’s like a dream come true. You’re playing for a legendary organization, a legendary city,” he says. “And you just have to go out there and perform and just be yourself. And I think all year that’s what I’ve done. I’ve gone out there. I’ve been myself. Obviously you don’t play great for 82 games, but I give effort every time on the court. If I play with effort, just be genuine, be myself, not really care about anything going on but keep winning as my most important thought. The city of New York can praise you, but just gotta go out there and just be you.” 

Everyone is going to have an opinion, and when Brunson signed with the team during free agency, there were plenty of things said about him, including that he was overpaid and overhyped. “A lot of people [that] are saying the things that they’re saying, whether you’re playing basketball or doing whatever, they probably can’t do it to a level that you could do it. You don’t really worry about it—you just focus on yourself, focus on what you can control. And that’s my mindset. This is how I’ve always been and this is how I’m going to be for the rest of my career.”

People also thought that the Knicks weren’t going to amount to much. But as we go to printers, they’re fifth in the East and legitimate playoff contenders. 

Wait, run that back. The Knicks are…what?

This is the same franchise that’s been building and working to get to this point. Every win was a step forward. And sure, missing the playoffs last year and losing in the first round the year prior seemed like two giant leaps backward, but you can’t deny that they’ve been making major strides this season. They’ve shown that they can hold their own against teams like Philly, Denver and Boston. They’ve had not one, but two serious winning streaks—eight games in December and a nine-game streak in February. Who’s laughing now?

Brunson is having an even better season than he did last year, and averaging new career-highs across the stat sheet: 23.8 points and 6.1 assists per game, shooting 41.4 percent from behind the arc. The duo of JB and Julius Randle, who was named an All-Star this past February, is just pure magic. 

“He’s been special since I got here,” Brunson says of Randle. “Just to see how hard he works, how careful he is with his craft and how bad he wants to win, and we share that. Obviously, we’re both lefties—including RJ [Barrett] we’re all lefties. But we all want to win.” 

When the Knicks are winning, the entire city is buzzing with an energy that can be felt across all five boroughs and beyond. In Midtown, there’s a sign outside of Marathon Coffee that lists things the establishment is grateful for. The first is Jalen Brunson. All the way past the Bronx in Yonkers, a man is pulling up to a laundromat proudly wearing a pair of Patrick Ewing 33s, a pair of Knicks basketball shorts and a snapback. The Knicks are New York’s team, and right now, everyone is hyped about this year’s squad. Barrett just scored more than 25 points for three straight games and has been solid while Brunson has been out with an ankle injury. When Immanuel Quickley dropped 38 against the Celtics in a double-overtime win, Brunson was on Twitter faster than an NBA insider, calling him everything from HIMBO FISHER to HIMMY FALLON. Then there’s Josh Hart, who just arrived in the city after being traded from Portland in February and is already being embraced. 

Brunson and Hart go way back—they were college roommates at Villanova when Brunson was a sophomore and Hart was a senior. “Josh is my brother,” Brunson says. “That’s just a bond that can never be broken when you do something as big as win a national championship. That’s special. And the fact that we kind of get to keep that flame burning in the NBA and play together. It’s been an honor, it’s been special. He brings a different element to our team and I think you’ve seen it. Since he’s played it’s been amazing. What he does on the court is so evident, so special. It may not show up in a stat sheet—some of the things that he does—but he’s a killer.”

The Knicks already had leaders in Randle and veterans like Derrick Rose, but what they now have with the addition of Brunson is someone just as dedicated to the grind and in a constant pursuit of consistency. Brunson has told us before that his confidence comes from his work ethic, but there’s a reason why he always brings it up—he just can’t stop thinking about it. “The one thing I obsess over is just my work ethic,” he says. “If I’m always working, I’m always getting prepared, I will never have to just get ready. Don’t need to get ready when you stay ready.” 

What’s been key to the Knicks’ resurgence this season, as well as their growing confidence, is how they’ve been able to stay connected. They’re balanced on both ends of the court, and harmonious off of it: cracking jokes with (and about) each other on Twitter, telling the media who would and wouldn’t survive a zombie apocalypse. When they beat the Heat, it was Brunson who hugged Randle in the middle of his postgame interview, while the big man explained how much love they have for one another. This year’s squad has nicknames for each other, too: JB calls Randle “Sergeant” (but says that Randle has to be the one to tell us why) and Rose is “OG.” 

“The best advice that Derrick has given me is probably, he just tells me to lead every day,” says Brunson “Every single day. There are days where obviously you just kind of want to get your work and you want to get out of there and clear your head, but a leader leads every single day. And he reminds me to do it every single day, and it’s just special to have him. I think his presence alone kind of makes me just have to lead because I look at him, he looks at me and it’s kind of an unspoken thing that we know what we got to do.” 

As for Brunson’s own leadership style: “At first, I like to lead by example, to kind of show everybody what I’m about, what my agenda is, and [let them] know what’s most important to me,” he explains. “And then once everyone starts to see that, you can start to be more vocal and kind of say how you feel, say what you want. But I love to get to know my audience—know my teammates, how they react to certain things, how they can take criticism or whatever. I wouldn’t say anything to my teammates that I wouldn’t do myself. And so it’s special. It’s unique. But I think for me, it works just because I’m genuine. I am who I am. And I’m unapologetic. But at the same time, I want to win. And that’s just first and foremost on my mind.”

When asked if he’s taken a moment to look at how far he’s come, Brunson brings things into perspective and admits that it doesn’t feel like he’s accomplished much of anything yet. “No, I haven’t had a moment yet,” he says, “because I haven’t done anything.” 

Really? Nothing? 

“I want to win as much as I can,” he adds. “I want to be a person that’s special. I want to win a championship in this League. That’s just my goal. And I just think that if you have a championship, you can talk about whatever you want. But I mean, individual stuff is great and all that stuff, but everyone strives to win. And that’s what drives me.”

That mentality is why Brunson fits right in. He knows the formula that it takes to achieve those goals, to become everything he’s always wanted and more. Brunson isn’t quick to call this a new era for the Knicks just yet; but as always, he’s ready to put in the work to get there. “I would just say that we’re growing. We’re getting better every single day,” he says. “I wouldn’t say this is an era because there’s a lot of history with this organization. And we have to do a lot more for it to be an era and can’t be just complacent with where we are now. [We’ve] got a lot more to prove.”

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Portraits by Marcus Stevens.

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