Recently there has been an unspoken standard set. At some point, in any conversation based upon any apex of current basketball greatness, a player from in or around Chicago -- regardless of NCAA, high school or AAU level -- is going to be mentioned. Over the years it's gotten to the point of not only bragging rights, but "shutting down the argument" pride.
And with the line of Derrick Rose-to-Anthony Davis-to-Jabari Parker-to-Jahlil Okafor likely coming to an end with Okafor's presumed departure for the NBA after next week, the certainty of the Chicago area's place in the future ruling of the game may cease. Then desist.
Then again, there's Jalen Brunson. He of the No. 1 point guard in the country ranking (according to scout.com), five-star ESPN Recruiting Nation rating, owner of Mr. Illinois basketball crown, Villanova-bound and arguably the most dangerous left hand in state history. With all due respect to the others who have recently left the state and gone on to cement a legacy of collective, regional greatness matched only by SEC players in the NFL -- a list that includes Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin); Tyler Ulis (Kentucky); Cliff Alexander (Kansas), even if he never plays another game of NCAA basketball, which he probably won't; and Wayne Blackshear (Louisville), who probably solidified a first-round selection in this year's draft with his 28-point performance in last week's Elite Eight loss -- the unasked question lingers: Is Brunson the next great basketball player we are going to claim?
Or more cynically (a Chicago trait), is he going to be the player who ends the trend/recent run of the Chicago area being the unquestioned best exporter of basketball talent in the world?
With the McDonald's All American Game making its annual pilgrimage to the city Wednesday -- and Brunson being the sole player from the state selected to play -- the question emerges simply because of how the past decade has unfolded when it comes to Chicago-based/Illinois-bred ball players.
It's a pressure that is almost invisible in the landscape of someone's basketball career. Especially at the age of 18. That responsibility should never fall on one's shoulders at this early stage. But unfortunately, in a basketball-obsessed place where that topic can and will be heard every day somewhere in the vicinity of the city, there is no true escape from it.
So two days before his appearance in the McDonald's game, when asked directly if he is Chicago's next star, Brunson's answers set a platform of plausible believability. A response that makes him impossible to be invisible.
"I definitely feel that I can be," he said. "I definitely feel like if I keep working -- like I know I can and like I know that I have been -- I definitely can be."
There is no hesitation, no pauses to measure thought in his response. Eye contact, locked. It's as if he's been asked this before, or he's answered the question for himself prior to ever being asked publicly. But as he talks, it is an answer I realize has nothing to do with talent and prodigy; instead, the concept of work covers his beliefs and words with blatant unpretentiousness.
"Look, I know how hard what you are asking me is going to be," he continues. "Nothing's ever easy. I know I'm not the most athletic; I don't jump out [of] the screen with talent. I'm just a guy that gets it done."
"As a high school basketball player, he is very polished," Chicago Public Schools Regional Athletic Director Joel Bullock says of Brunson, who completed his high school career at Stevenson this year. "And he has an unbelievable basketball IQ, probably the highest basketball IQ I've seen at the high school level. But what you are asking, I'm not sure."
And what I am searching for is the continuation of a subjective legacy unquantified, but with a history that has the potential to be more real than digital bios, stat sheets and millions made from contracts. It's about a player three or 13 years from now being mentioned in the same exhale of Rose, Davis, Parker, Okafor.
Which is why Bullock mentioned concerns about Brunson's foot speed, strength and size. But the more he talked about Brunson, the more he talked himself out of his concerns. Speaking more in depth about Brunson's intelligence, use of angles, understanding how to use those angles to not just go around defenders but through them, ability to get to the free throw line and to control a game without scoring. About his high-scoring average without being a high-volume shooter. About efficiency. About consistency. About how simple Brunson makes the game seem until you get out there and try to duplicate what he does.
Bullock goes one better.
"If Jalen can transform everything he's been able to do in high school to the next level [college], he can probably be a lottery pick. He understands things in the game that kids at his age aren't supposed to. Let me say this: He doesn't have the natural ability like Derrick Rose or Jahlil Okafor or Cliff Alexander or those guys, but his basketball IQ might be better than theirs."
Words trail off and Bullock concludes with one player to counter my two: James Harden.
Brunson doesn't speak to this. Far too humble. He's leaving that for us to do as he evolves.
He also doesn't speak of the 56- and 57-point games within a month of each other during last year's regional and state playoff runs, or of how he had the most points received (552) for Mr. Illinois voting since Rose. Instead, he speaks about the state championship semifinal game that Bullock mentioned impressed him the most, where the son of former NBA player Rick Brunson couldn't find the basket in the first half (1-for-10) but still found a way to "get it done." Brunson finished that game with 21 points (4-for-18, 0-for-7 from 3), six rebounds, five assists, six turnovers, but went 13-for-14 from the line.
"I kept telling myself, 'No matter what I'm not losing,'" he said. "Even if I don't score, we're not losing. I'm going to make a difference. I'm not going out without a fight.
"I wasn't concerned because I wasn't doing anything different. I wasn't trying to force [anything], I'm shooting the shots I normally make. But I knew I was OK when I was still making my free throws. That's when I knew it was mechanical, not mental."
The next game he scored 30 of his team's 57 points, ending his high school career with a 4A state championship. Genius, uninterrupted.
Brunson went so far as to use the word "if" when talking about even starting for Villanova next season. Which itself is crazy. In 20-some-odd years of covering/following high school basketball professionally, I've never heard a McDonald's All American say, "If I start next year" when speaking about his freshman year in college. Not even the players from last year who were going to Kentucky and Duke.
That right there says more to me about Brunson than anything else I need to hear. It almost makes the point of him extending our city/area/state hoop supremacy irrelevant. Eerie that it was 10 years ago in a second-round NCAA tournament game that a non-starting point guard for Villanova came off the bench to score a then-career-high 15 points, thrusting himself into the national spotlight that became the beginning of his ascension to current stardom. That player's name? Kyle Lowry.
Indication that Brunson's road has been paved. Now it's on him to either follow or fall. Odds are leaning heavy on the former.
"Everyone said growing up that 'you aren't going to do this or you aren't going to do that,'" he said, completely answering the original question I confronted him with. "I mean, there's some type of motivation with every guy that everyone keeps in the back of their heads when they are working. And my motivation is that everyone thinks that I'm not going to be the next guy, that I'm not going to be the next great Chicagoland player. I just keep that in the back of my mind. If that's what everyone thinks, hey, I've proved many people wrong before, and I know that with their comments I can do it again."