PHILADELPHIA — Jalen Brunson cracked a smile ever so slightly, allowing himself a moment of levity after the Knicks’ frustrating loss to the 76ers.
Yes, Brunson said, playing with Josh Hart at Villanova helped him become an NBA player. But it was also dangerous at times going up against him in practice.
“He tried to kill me a couple times for sure,” Brunson said after the Knicks’ 119-108 loss to the 76ers on Friday night. “You’re laughing and I’m dead serious.”
Hart, who was acquired by the Knicks from the Trail Blazers in a deal Tursday that also included the Hornets and 76ers, certainly has an edge to him. Brunson saw that up close for two years at the Big East school. He will get to experience it again now with the Knicks.
“He’s a tough-minded guy,” Brunson said. “He doesn’t back down from a challenge and that’s how he is and that’s how he’s been. I’m not worried at all. He’s going to fit in.”
Hart was on-hand Friday, but wasn’t active. He is expected to make his Knicks debut at the Garden on Saturday night against the Jazz. His role is uncertain. Coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t say if he planned to start Hart or bring him off the bench. Thibodeau doesn’t believe it’s who starts that is important, but who finishes.
Hart averaged 9.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 33.4 minutes for the Trail Blazers. He keyed a win for Portland over the Knicks at the Garden on Nov. 25, when he had 10 points, 19 rebounds, four assists and two steals.
At the time, Thibodeau called him the best rebounding guard in the league. The Knicks need help in that area. They are tied for 19th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage at 71.3 and 21st in second-chance points allowed per game (14.3). Hart is fourth among guards in the NBA in the defensive rebounding percentage at 18.9, trailing only Luka Doncic, Jarrett Culver and Jayson Tatum.
“The thing that I like about him is just his competitive spirit, so I think you can put him on a primary scorer and he’ll make that person work,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t know if you really measure [this] statistically. I think his toughness is a big thing and that’s something that we need.”
It seems that Hart will fit in well with the second unit of Quickley, Obi Toppin and Isaiah Hartenstein, a group that can really get out in transition. He is very familiar with Brunson, too, and started all 51 games he appeared in for Portland this year.
“He does a lot. He can do everything. And I think with him, he has a mindset of whatever the team needs, he can fulfill that,” Brunson said. “That’s how he’s always been since [Villanova] and he’s gotten better and better at it each year. He’s just a competitor and he’s just a guy that wants to win and will do whatever it takes just to win.”