Jay Wright ‘like a proud father’ as former Villanova stars’ bond lifts up Knicks

1 month ago New York Post

Jay Wright won’t need to search the Knicks’ schedule to know when they’re playing. His phone will tell him.

It will buzz constantly, with text messages, photos and videos pouring in from Villanova alums, friends and family members as two of his former stars, Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart, lead the Knicks to their latest victory.

It’s more than just two players excelling at the next level — they’re doing it for the Knicks, the team many Villanova fans root for. The Big East school’s largest alumni base, Wright pointed out, is New York City.

“Villanova people are just going crazy over it because they’re all Knicks fans,” the recently retired Villanova coach and current CBS college basketball analyst told The Post in a phone interview. “It’s really thrilling for all of us. To see the joy it’s bringing all the Villanova people, and I should say the people who aren’t Knicks fans, they are now, Villanovans.”

“You’re like a proud father, you’re watching your kids out there,” Wright added. “It’s like they’re starting a business or something.”

Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart


Knicks games have become Villanova infomercials. The entire team and coaching staff attended Brunson’s No. 1 jersey retirement recently. Coach Tom Thibodeau is frequently asked about the Villanova program, particularly since the Feb. 8 trade for Hart reunited two key members of the Wildcats’ 2016 national championship team. Hart has provided a jolt, scoring in double figures in his first three games as a Knick — all of them wins.

The Post’s Mike Vaccaro anointed the team “Knickanova.”

“I saw that — everybody in New York sent that to me,” Wright said. “It was awesome. I loved it.”

The story of this Knicks season, in which they have overachieved so far — six games over .500 at the All-Star break and within two games of the Nets for fifth place in the Eastern Conference — has been Brunson, and the impact he has made through 60 games. With Brunson leading the way, the Knicks are 33-27, their best record at the break in a decade.

Wright isn’t necessarily surprised by what his former point guard has done, averaging career-bests of 23.9 points, 6.2 assists, 5.9 free throw attempts and 41.1 percent 3-point shooting, and helping All-Star Julius Randle find his game following a down year.

His NBA career arc has followed what he did in college, starting as a role player and eventually becoming a star. Wright recalled watching him put up massive numbers in high school, huge scoring games that sometimes reached into the 50s. He has seen this all before. He laughs now at the summer narrative that the Knicks overpaid for Brunson by giving him a four-year, $104 million contract to leave Luka Doncic and the Mavericks.

“Now you can argue it’s a bargain,” Wright joked. “I think it’s natural for him to be a go-to guy and a scorer that leads his team. But if he needs to, to win, he’ll take a supporting role, which he did for us. … He was willing to wait his turn. He hasn’t changed at all. He’s done the same thing in the NBA.”

Josh Hart and Jay Wright after Villanova won the 2015 Big East Tournament.

Getty Images

Wright foresees this tandem sticking together for a while. The high-energy Hart, a first-round pick (30th overall) of the Jazz in 2017 has bounced around the league. The Knicks are the two-way wing’s fourth team and Thibodeau is his sixth coach in his seventh season. Wright thinks Hart, a free agent-to-be if he doesn’t pick up his $12.9 million player option, wouldn’t mind staying a while in New York City.

Team president Leon Rose, when he worked at CAA, was Hart’s agent. Hart is extremely close with Brunson. And it would be an opportunity to get back to his northeast roots as a Silver Spring, Md., native after spending time in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Portland.

MSGJosh Hart and Jalen Brunson walk off the Garden floor together.

Getty Images

“I think he’s in love with New York City,” the 61-year-old Wright said. “I think he would love being here.”

As much as Wright is enjoying this, he has reminded both players not to let their success go to their head. The NBA is too tough of a league. New York City is too demanding of a town. There will be valleys to match the peaks. The better they play, the more scrutiny there will be.

“With this, comes a lot of responsibility and a lot more challenges,” Wright has told them. “With this hype, guys are going to come after you, and I think both of them are smart about it.”

Jalen Brunson and Jay Wright.


Wright sounded like a concerned father, still trying to help steer his children in the right direction even after they have left home. One thing he wants to make clear: He doesn’t deserve credit for how far the 26-year-old Brunson and 27-year-old Hart have come since leaving Villanova. Hart was taken with the final pick of the first round in 2017 and Brunson was selected in the second round (33rd overall) the following year. They have gotten to this point on their own, with their work ethic and determination. Wright is just enjoying the ride.

“I always check the highlights, I always check the box scores,” Wright said. “It’s like a little dessert you get every night.”

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