Kris Jenkins

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.

Villanova's Kris Jenkins is ready for whatever road leads to NBA

Villanova's Kris Jenkins is ready for whatever road leads to NBA

CAMDEN, N.J — Kris Jenkins looked like he was just happy to be there. Even after a disappointing end to his iconic career in which the three-point assassin failed to make a triple in an early NCAA Tournament exit, the smile and the swagger he carried with him during four years at Villanova didn't fade.

It's part of why they call him "Big Smoove." 

He's the one who made "the shot" and one-third of the best class in Villanova basketball history. They lost one game on campus. They beat every Big 5 team they faced. They won four Big East regular-season titles, two Big East Tournament titles and one national championship.

Yet all of that means very little now. Jenkins, who worked out for the Sixers at their training complex Tuesday, will have an uphill battle in his upcoming NBA quest. He comes from a Villanova program that, despite its national prominence, does not regularly churn out NBA players. His game is largely dominated by his ability to hit from deep and his weight has always been a concern. He will need to perform at a higher level than he did on the Main Line to make it in the Association.

"If that means forgetting about one shot and bringing it up 12 years from now," Jenkins said, "I can do that."

Jenkins' ability to shoot has never been in question. He made 37 percent of the 708 threes he hoisted up during his career, and it will be the skill that keeps him around on any team in the future. He'll likely need to bump that percentage up a bit to play at the highest level for long.

But he said he's not just a shooter.

If that's true, he'll need to add reliability on the other end. At Villanova, he had Big East co-defensive players of the year in Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges alongside him. In the NBA, he will have less room for mistakes. Jahlil Okafor can give you an example of how people feel about defensive liabilities.

"The question is, for him, is whether he's going to be able to shoot it at an elite level and defend the position," Brandon Williams, the Sixers' vice president of basketball administration and general manager of the Delaware 87ers, said.

That doesn't mean Jenkins, who grew up in Maryland and has known presumed Sixers' first-round pick Markelle Fultz for years, can't find a place. He looked lighter Tuesday than he had recently, and, in his words, "was in the right positions" defensively and "contested every shot." Williams recognized that any lapses in the three-on-three games he participated in don't matter for much. Five-on-five is where they draw judgement. 

Unless a team unexpectedly loves him, Jenkins will go undrafted Thursday night. That's when what Williams called the "third round" will begin. The Sixers will get a chance to sign undrafted free agents, who will then try to prove their worth in the summer league.

On the other end will be three options: the spot on an NBA bench, an opportunity to develop in the G-League or the door. 

The third option leads to more immediate money overseas, but the second extends a chance for the ultimate goal. Should it come to deciding between the two, it sounded like Jenkins' choice is already made.

"I would go wherever the best opportunity is for me to play at the highest level, which is to play in the NBA," Jenkins said. "That's always the dream, that's always been the dream, and it will continue to be the dream no matter what road I have to take."

Last year, Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono failed to make the cut for the Spurs' roster but stayed with the organization's affiliate in Austin. His classmate, Daniel Ochefu, made the Wizards. Class of 2015 product Darrun Hilliard has been up and down with the Pistons. Reggie Redding, a member of Villanova's 2009 Final Four team, has done well in Europe.

The Wildcats' presence is on all levels.

"I've talked to a bunch of those guys and they're all in great situations and they're happy," Jenkins said. "At the end of the day, you want to be somewhere where you're happy."

And for now, with a chance to bring that "smoove" shot and smile to a new team, Jenkins seems to be just that.