Brunson seeks strong bond

Brunson seeks strong bond

CHAMPAIGN — When he was bored and had little else going on as a seventh-grader in Charlottesville, Va., Jalen Brunson would call Carl Brown and ask the same question each time.

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“He’d just say, ‘Coach, can we get some shots up?’ ” Brown recalled.

Brown never refused, and the pair would work on shooting together for hours, putting up hundreds of jumpers regularly.

“He just had that drive,” Brown said. “He always wanted to do it the right way and always looked at things from the standpoint that he could always do something to get better.”

Brown was Brunson’s coach at Buford Middle School, where the point guard and coach teamed to set the school record for wins in a season.

“We used to beat up on people,” Brown said.

They remain close today, even after Brunson and his family moved to the Chicago area, where the senior-to-be is a star at Stevenson High in north suburban Lincolnshire and rated as one of the top players in the country.

“They talk weekly,” Rick Brunson said of his son and Brown.

Jalen has a similar bond with Pat Ambrose, his head coach at Stevenson. And whatever college program he chooses, Jalen will have chosen that program because of a bond he has developed with its head coach.

The five-star point guard begins his official visit to Illinois this morning, during which he’ll tour campus and meet and mingle with players and fans. Most important, though, he’ll use the time to further develop his relationship with John Groce and the rest of the UI coaching staff.

“Having a connection with the coach is the No. 1 priority,” Rick said. “Jalen is at his best when he and the coach have a connection.”

Having that connection, Rick said, makes his son a better player.

“That makes Jalen compete harder,” Rick said. “He doesn’t want to let you down as a coach and as a person. That’s important to him and to us.”

After this weekend’s visit to Illinois, Jalen has visits scheduled for Michigan State, Temple, Villanova and Purdue. All five schools have made the final cut because of Jalen and his family’s comfort level with their respective head coaches.

Groce has left an impression, too.

“I think John Groce is a very good guy. My son loves his enthusiasm, loves the fact that he connects with the players, loves his coaching style,” Rick said. “As a parent, my wife (Sandra) and I sit back and tell him, ‘This guy seems genuine.’ That’s where we step in.”

Rick was a McDonald’s All-American out of Salem High in Massachusetts who later starred at Temple before spending nine seasons as a guard in the NBA. He has coached in the NBA for Denver, Chicago and Charlotte. He also has spent time on college staffs at Virginia and Hartford.

He knows the business, and that has led to a misconception that he’s controlling his son’s recruitment.

“If people think that, they’re sadly mistaken,” Rick said. “It’s a situation where he has to make a decision. We’re going to support him, but it’s his decision.”

When it comes to Illinois, Jalen likes Groce’s enthusiasm, his connection with the players and his coaching style.

“You’ve got to be a blind man not to see that Illinois, from a basketball perspective, is a great opportunity for him to showcase what he can do,” Rick said. “Groce has done a great job of delivering that message. The opportunity is certainly there, but nothing’s going to be given to you. Jalen has to go in there and do his part as well. That intrigues him.”

Since Jalen’s junior season in high school ended with a 56-point effort in a Class 4A IHSA state semifinal loss to eventual champion Whitney Young in March, he has been all over the country just about every weekend playing in different events. He has spent time with the Mac Irvin Fire on the AAU circuit. He helped lead USA Basketball’s U17 team to a gold medal in the FIBA world championships. The 6-foot-1 guard also participated at the Nike Global Challenge earlier this month.

During that whirlwind, Jalen has spoken publicly very little, with the focus being placed primarily on basketball.

“He has been coast to coast. If he’s playing a lot of basketball, there’s certain things you have to sacrifice. So I tell him, ‘Son, stay off the phone,’ ” Rick said. “ ‘Go play basketball and just be a kid.’ If he comes home and doesn’t want to talk to anybody, doesn’t want to talk to coaches, that’s fine. He’s a kid; he’s allowed to do that. We told him it’s up to him, and there’s a time and place where you talk.”

If he chose, Jalen would have plenty to talk about with the lofty recruiting rankings, the international basketball success and the success of Stevenson’s program the last couple of years. But with the guidance of his father and Brown, Jalen has remained humble.  

You have to dig to find a negative in Jalen’s game, but one that’s out there is he’s not the most athletic player in the 2015 class. Doesn’t matter, according to Brown.

“He has never been the most athletic kid. We had kids on our team who were probably better than him, but none of them worked like he works,” Brown said. “There’s not even a comparison there. I don’t think a lot of kids in the country realize how hard this kid works.”

That work, combined with his knowledge of the game, prolific shooting ability and penchant for making plays for his teammates, has put Jalen in position to pick just about any school in the country to continue his basketball career, and a decision isn’t far off.

It could come this weekend during the visit to Illinois or after the final visit to Purdue, scheduled for the final weekend in September.

“If it makes him feel right and he feels it in his bones, he’s going to pull the trigger,” Rick said. “I tell him, ‘If you have a place you want to go, name it so you can stop wasting people’s time.’ ”

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