DETROIT — Perhaps the most consistent thing through the Knicks' first 20 games has been Jalen Brunson's emergence as the team’s most valuable player. And that he has consistently taken blame on his own shoulders when things go wrong.
But as Brunson makes his way through running a team for the first time as the primary player, Derrick Rose has been watching and he sees a problem. It’s not a problem with Brunson’s play, which has impressed him. But it’s simply that he is overthinking his game.
Asked what change he needs to see from the Knicks if they are to emerge from their place outside of the playoff picture, he didn’t hesitate.
“It’s been a couple years now — urgency,” Rose said after the Knicks' morning shootaround before they faced the shorthanded Detroit Pistons, the team with the worst record in the NBA. “Just make sure we go out and play with the same confidence every game and just play together. We tend to go the other way when everybody is thinking too much. We’re trying to get guys to get out of that style of play.”
Over the Knicks' last three games entering Tuesday Brunson had scored at least 30 points in each game, but the Knicks had lost the last two and the common denominator Brunson said was "twice I missed game winners. That’s what it is. I’m just saying. Twice.”
It is that thinking that Rose believes needs to change for Brunson to become what he can be for the team.
“I love it,” Rose said of watching Brunson, who is averaging 21.8 points and 6.7 assists through the first 20 games. “But he was one of the players I was talking about, just thinking too much. You could tell when he’s overthinking on the floor. You can’t play that way. [In] basketball, you’ve got some guys who can play that way, but [to] the majority of the guys that play it’s a reaction type of sport.
“Like when you’re out there overthinking that’s when things tend to go bad. Just play, no matter if you mess up or you missed the last shot. Who cares? You’re going to have many shots like that. How many shots did you hit to tie the game? He hit like four or five of them to tie the game. When you’re a young player and you’re put in this position for the first time it can be like a quagmire type of situation, but the more you play and the more you build your confidence it should be good.”
“Jalen’s built for this,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “This is who he’s been his whole career. It’s also what drives him. That’s what makes him special. I think he has the appropriate approach to everything. I think he has a great determination. He’s got great mental toughness. He’s got a great competitive spirit. I think all those things combined is what drives his improvement also. He has the courage to take those shots. He’s made a bunch of them. Look, he put us in that position. He had 17 points in the fourth quarter.”
Brunson was the Knicks' biggest acquisition for this season, while the return of Rose from a foot injury that limited him to only 25 games last season was expected to deliver a lift, too. Rose has been finding his way through the usual bumps and bruises, while Brunson has started every game and averaged 33.2 minutes.
It isn’t just the minutes load and playing through injuries that have impressed Rose about Brunson; it’s also leading an NBA team for the first time.
Brunson has tried to navigate his way through the new team, working to fit in with Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. But he also has taken on a more prominent role. He talked after misfiring twice in the final 10 seconds against Memphis Sunday and of the trust his teammates and coaches have placed in him but still struggled with the reality that he had missed in the clutch.
“Exactly, that’s what I’m saying,” Rose said. “Or you’re trying to play a perfect game. There’s no such thing as a perfect game in the NBA. Like any sport, you may look at that one every couple of years or some [expletive] like that, but outside of that you’re going to mess up. It’s about you having a keen mind while you’re out there and knowing that if you mess up you can’t make that mistake two or three times in a row.”