Josh Hart

Villanova is Jalen Brunson's team now

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Villanova is Jalen Brunson's team now

VILLANOVA, Pa. — For a few nervous weeks following the end of the 2016-17 college basketball season, Villanova fans held their breath as they waited to see if Jalen Brunson would return to school or follow Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds out the door.

As it turned out, they had nothing to worry out.

Brunson never truly considered turning pro early because he always coveted the chance to take the leadership baton from Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds — last season’s standout senior trio — and make the Villanova program his own.

“I’ve been preparing for this moment the past couple of years,” Brunson said. “Ever since I came to Villanova, I wanted to be a leader, wanted to be a captain, wanted to be able to contribute to this culture. I’m just excited to have the opportunity.”

Considering the players they lost — Hart was one of the top players in the nation last season and Jenkins, of course, hit the famous National Championship-winning shot the season before that — the Wildcats may be hard-pressed to repeat the utter dominance of recent years. Over the last four seasons, Jay Wright’s team has amassed a combined 129-17 record.

But the Wildcats remain the favorite to win their fifth straight regular-season Big East title, and Brunson was picked as the league’s preseason player of the year.

“I never worry about anything on the outside affecting him negatively,” Wright said of the preseason accolades, which also includes the junior point guard’s inclusion on the Wooden Award watch list. “He always finds inspiration and motivation from everything that happens to him. It’s a really unique quality he has.”

Also unique is Brunson’s ability to adapt to any situation with Wright saying that the point guard's deferring to the upperclassmen during his first two seasons helped drive the team’s success but was not necessarily well-suited for him.

“Freshman year, he had a complementary role. Last year he stepped up a little bit more. But this year, it’s really obvious he’s a leader on the court and off the court,” the Villanova coach said. “It’s a very comfortable role for him. I think the last two years was probably more uncomfortable for him. He is a natural-born leader.”

Wright is also counting on Brunson to score more this year after he averaged a healthy 14.7 points per game last season. He’ll get help in that department from a loaded backcourt that also features Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth. Booth played only three games last season before sitting out with a knee injury.

“It’s really nice to have Phil back,” Wright said. “Phil is probably the most respected and well-liked player of any of the players. … I think everyone is really rooting for him and I think they’re inspired having him back.”

Wright said Booth’s ability to break down a defense and create his own shot will be a “valuable weapon.” The 'Nova coach is also excited to see Bridges, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, turn into a more complete player and see if freshman guard Collin Gillespie can turn into the next big thing.

In Friday’s season opener vs. Columbia — which, like most home games, will be played at the Wells Fargo Center while their on-campus home at the Pavilion undergoes renovations — Wright may go with a four-guard lineup that includes Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo and Gillespie with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman (see story) starting up top and Bridges and forward Eric Paschall coming in off the bench.

Either way, the Wildcats should have more depth than last season when they played only seven guys following the injury to Booth. The question is whether that will translate to the same kind of success.

“We hope our depth this year allows us to press more, play faster, not worry about guys fouling out,” Wright said. “Our depth this year will give us the chance to press more the way we want to, play faster like we want to, and lets us be more aggressive on defense and we hope be more aggressive overall.”

VILLANOVA AT A GLANCE

Head coach
Jay Wright, 17th year

Last year
• 32-4 overall, 15-3 Big East
• Won Big East regular-season and tournament championships 
• No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament (lost to Wisconsin in second round)

Top returners
• Jalen Brunson (junior guard)
• Phil Booth (redshirt junior guard)
• Donte DiVincenzo (junior guard)
• Mikal Bridges (redshirt junior guard/forward)

Key losses
• Guard Josh Hart (now with Lakers)
• Forward Kris Jenkins
• Forward Darryl Reynolds

Impact newcomers
• Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman
• Freshman Collin Gillispie

Games to watch
• Dec. 2 at Saint Joseph’s
• Dec. 5 vs. Gonzaga (New York)
• Dec. 13 at Temple
• Jan. 23 vs. Providence
• Feb. 4 vs. Seton Hall
• Feb. 24 at Creighton

Best-case scenario
Villanova enjoys playing the majority of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center, cruises to another Big East title and makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Worst-case scenario
Not having a senior hurts more than the Wildcats realize as they fall off their perch atop the Big East and once again fail to get out of the first weekend of the Big Dance.

Josh Hart drafted in 1st round, goes to Lakers; undrafted Kris Jenkins reportedly joins Wizards

Josh Hart drafted in 1st round, goes to Lakers; undrafted Kris Jenkins reportedly joins Wizards

Josh Hart heard his name called, while Villanova teammate Kris Jenkins did not.

Hart snuck into the first round of Thursday night's NBA draft, going 30th overall to the Utah Jazz. However, the Wildcat is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers, via a trade.

While Jenkins went undrafted, it looks like he'll have a shot with an NBA team. Jenkins will join the Washington Wizards this offseason to compete for a roster spot, according to a report by NBA.com's David Aldridge.

After winning the national title as a junior with Villanova, Hart collected plenty of accolades in a standout senior season. The 6-foot-5 wing was named a consensus first-team All-American, Big East Player of the Year and took home the Julius Erving award as the top small forward in the country.

For the 32-4 Wildcats, Hart, a Silver Spring, Maryland native, averaged 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 40.4 percent from three-point range.

"I'm my biggest critic," he said last week after a pre-draft workout for the Sixers. "I drive myself as much as I can. I demand perfection from myself."

As Hart travels west, Jenkins, on the other hand, will head home for his NBA opportunity. The 6-foot-6 forward, beloved for his buzzer-beating three-pointer to win Villanova its 2016 national championship, is from Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He worked out for the Wizards in early June. He also worked out for the Sixers on Tuesday.

"It's a blessing," he said after his session with the Wizards, via the Washington Post. "You always root for the hometown team, you always want them to do well. Honestly it's humbling to be in this position, to grow up in this area, to have some games here and play college ball here and then come back and work out for the Wizards."

After flirting with the NBA draft process following their title-winning season, both Hart and Jenkins decided to return to school for their senior campaigns.

They both took to Twitter on Thursday night following the draft — Hart in excitement, Jenkins more in a humorous manner.

Potential 2nd-round targets for Sixers in NBA draft: Small forwards/guards

Potential 2nd-round targets for Sixers in NBA draft: Small forwards/guards

We've already taken a look at the big men the Sixers could target in the second round (see story).

Here are the small forwards and guards who could be in the mix for the team in Round 2. 

Josh Hart: Shooting guard, 6-6/204, Villanova
Who knows more about what they would be getting in the Villanova champion than the Sixers?

Hart grew by leaps and bounds as a player during his four seasons on the Main Line, but the one thing that remained the same: his energy level. Hart plays with a certain intensity on both ends of the floor that will definitely give him a boost at the next level.

He paired that focus with his evolving skills to put together a stellar senior season. The versatile wing averaged 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Hart also shot 51.0 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three-point land during a 2016-17 campaign in which he was named consensus first-team All-American, Big East Player of the Year and received the Julius Erving award as the top small forward in the country.

What Hart lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with his high basketball IQ, fierce competitive nature and winning pedigree (see story). After the dog days of "The Process," the Sixers could definitely use a guy with such a history of winning on their roster.

Dillon Brooks: Small forward, 6-7/215, Oregon
Even with Joel Embiid finally in action, the Sixers' offensive numbers were still pretty ugly last season. They ranked 25th in scoring, 27th in field goal percentage and 25th in three-point percentage.

Brooks wouldn't solve those woes by himself, but he's and offensive weapon who would absolutely help.

Brooks continued his improved shooting in his junior season with marks of 48.8 percent on field goals and 40.1 percent on three-pointers. He led a deep Ducks team with 16.1 points per game as he was named Pac-12 Player of the Year.

The skill to drain shots from each level of the floor and come through in the game's biggest moments will be attractive to a lot of teams in the middle of the second round (see story). With the Sixers' wing-needy situation, they might give the fiery Brooks a long look.

Jaron Blossomgame: Small forward/power forward, 6-7/214, Clemson
Sometimes you just need that dog on the basketball court. A guy that you know is going to get after it on each and every possession.

From an NBA standpoint, think Tony Allen or Avery Bradley.

That's what the Sixers would be getting in a guy like Blossomgame, whom they worked out last year before he opted to return to Clemson and again earlier this month.

His offense is going to come and go (his point production dipped slightly as a senior and his three-point shooting fell off a cliff — 44.1 percent to 25.5 percent). However, Blossomgame will put on that defensive hat night after night and get the job done.

He's a bundle of energy, and at nearly 24 years old has a strong frame that's already built for the league (see story).

For a Sixers team that allowed 108.1 points per game (24th in the NBA), Blossomgame should at least be under consideration.

Frank Mason III: Point guard, 5-11/185, Kansas
Not too many prospects under the 6-foot mark get legitimate NBA consideration. However, when you are this good and decorated as a collegiate player, teams tend to make an exception.

Let's just take a look at what Mason accomplished in 2016-17 alone: named consensus national player of the year, named consensus first-team All-American, won the Bob Cousy award (nation's top point guard), named Big 12 Player of the Year and first-team All-Big 12.

While college achievements are far from a guarantee of NBA success, Mason's makeup suggests he will find a way to survive at the next level. 

First off, he's an absolute pit bull on the court. Despite, his short stature, Mason is stocky and aggressive on both ends. He's also a solid shooter, particularly from long range. The PG finished his four seasons with the Jayhawks with career shooting marks of 45.4 percent from the field and 42.0 percent from long range (see story).

The 23-year-old is also a natural leader. Mason is vocal and a true extension of the coach on the floor. Even playing with other prime-time players at a program like Kansas, he was still a major reason the Jayhawks won 116 games during his time on campus.

Tyler Dorsey: Shooting guard, 6-4/180, Oregon
When considering instant offense off the bench in a second-round pick, few players might provide that option better than Dorsey. 

Dorsey averaged 14.6 points per game on 46.7 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three-point range. Those numbers skyrocketed during the NCAA Tournament when the 21-year-old caught fire as he averaged 23.8 points in five games and shot 59.6 percent from the field and 60.6 percent from deep.

Dorsey does provide the option of playing either guard spot and noted he would be a good fit alongside Ben Simmons and the rest of the Sixers when the Pasadena, California native worked out for the team earlier this month (see story).

He doesn't offer much outside of the shooting department, but that's arguably the biggest issue for this young Sixers squad.

Others to keep an eye on: Duke SG Frank Jackson, Gonzaga PG Nigel Williams-Goss, Florida State SF Dwayne Bacon.