Why Jalen Brunson and the Knicks’ local pro-am outing was more than just a game: ‘Show love to the city’

Why Jalen Brunson and the Knicks’ local pro-am outing was more than just a game: ‘Show love to the city’

Bernard Bowen was expecting a big night, a doubleheader of quarterfinal playoff games in his Nike Pro City pro-am league that would include Knicks forward Obi Toppin.

But this went way beyond his loftiest aspirations. Because it wasn’t just Toppin who showed up to play for the Hoopsville squad on Monday night. He was joined by two of his Knicks teammates, Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, the team’s newly signed $104 million dollar point guard.

The crowd at Hostos Community College in The Bronx was standing room-only. It was summer basketball at its romanticized best, big stars immersing themselves in the community.

“It was electrifying,” Bowen, the tournament director, told The Post. “You’re talking about Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. They’re the face of the Knicks. Those are max players. They came out to show love to the city and play. That was just so dope of them.”

Despite the excitement, Randle, Toppin and Brunson fell short, losing 110-97 to Ave Life A.L.F., a team that featured local products turned college stars such as Khadeen Carrington (Seton Hall), Jordan Washington (Iona), Jordan Aaron (UW-Milwaukee) and Desure Buie (Hofstra).

Obi Toppin with the New York Knicks participated in the Pro City Playoffs at Hostos Community College Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Bronx.Obi Toppin thrilled Nike Pro City organizers when he showed up on Monday and brought along with two of his Knicks teammates, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle.Robert Sabo

Predictably, the loss by the Knicks contingent was met with plenty of jokes on social media. Bowen, though, commended them. Randle, he said, handled trash talk from a few fans well, and Brunson chose to play his first game in New York City as a Knick at the event. Nike Pro City games are free, Bowen pointed out, at least a few hundred dollars less than it will cost to watch Randle, Toppin and Brunson play at the Garden come November.

“That’s what it’s about,” Bowen said. “For those guys to come out for … New York City, the culture of basketball, the kids see that. The city needed that type of energy. It was an epic night.”

One of the stars of the game turned out to be Aaron, a former star at Wings Academy and UW-Milwaukee who last played overseas in England in 2016. Now he’s a fixture in local pro-am leagues. The 29-year-old Bronx native poured in 39 points against the Knicks trio, a performance he put up there among the very best in his career.

“I hope this proves that I can still play with anybody and get an opportunity from this,” said the 5-foot-10 Aaron, who works for Phipps Neighborhoods, Inc. as an outreach specialist. “This is one of the best moments [I’ve had]. I came in with a chip on my shoulder. I never really got to grace the court with active big names in the league. For me to go out there and have the game I had, not care who was in front of me, that was big for me.”

Julius Randle with the New York Knicks participated in the Pro City Playoffs at Hostos Community College Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Bronx.Facing a team filled with former NYC-based college basketball stars, Julius Randle and his Nike Pro City team lost 110-97 at Hostos Community College.Robert Sabo

Ideally, he hopes his big night opened some eyes and leads to a return to the professional basketball ranks overseas. Whether it does or not, Aaron clearly was thrilled to share the court with the Knicks players, and even talked some trash, telling them they couldn’t guard him.

He also had a poignant interaction with Brunson after matching up against him for a large portion of the game. Aaron told the newest Knick that he was worth every cent of his big contract.

“He was real appreciative of that,” Aaron said. “He told me, ‘Thank you.’ I know that’s something that’s probably on his mind. I wanted him to know the real ones that’s playing ball and really playing basketball, we know we got someone good in the city.”

Milwaukee Panthers guard Jordan Aaron (0) drives to the hoop during the Horizon League men's basketball championship game in March 2014.Jordan Aaron, who poured in 39 points against Jalen Brunson and Co. in the pro-am, was a prep standout in The Bronx and collegiately at UW-Milwaukee, but hasn’t played professionally since 2016. Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Simply put, it was a night Aaron and Bowen agreed they would remember for a long time.

“It was almost like playing at Madison Square Garden, but at a smaller venue,” Aaron said. “It was a crazy atmosphere, one of the best games I’ve ever played in New York City.”

What’s old is new again for IQ

It appears likely Immanuel Quickley’s role this season will return to that of his rookie year, when he predominantly played off the ball and served as a microwave scorer off the bench. Barring injury, he will not be needed to play on the ball. The addition of Jalen Brunson and a return to health by Derrick Rose likely will allow Quickley to focus on his strength: scoring.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still working on his on-ball skills. In fact, Quickley has spent this offseason honing his playmaking.

“We put a big emphasis on his passing, we’ve worked a lot on his passing out of the pick-and-roll,” Quickley’s trainer, Andrew Morant of Miami School of Hoops, told The Post. “Early pockets, late pockets and finding the corner shooters as he comes out of the pick-and-roll.”

Quickley, 23, didn’t take the step forward that some were expecting of him last season. In almost four more minutes per game compared to his rookie year, his scoring stayed the same, but his 3-point percentage dropped from 38.9 to 34.6. Some of that can be attributed to being used on the ball more due to injuries to Rose and Kemba Walker, and he did increase his assists average from 2.0 to 3.5 per game.

Immanuel Quickley #5 of the New York Knicks goes up for a lay up during the fourth quarter. The New Orleans Pelicans defeat The New York Knicks 102-91.Immanuel Quickley has spent this summer working on his skills at both guard spots.Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

But Morant and Quickley made sure to put in a lot of work this summer on playing off the ball, trying to improve his layup package to supplement his floater game. One particular area they focused on was getting open without the ball.

“Let’s say he gives the ball up. We worked on not just trying to run to a spot,” said Morant, who also worked with Tim Hardaway Jr., Royce O’Neale and Tyler Herro, among others. “If you watch Steph Curry, he sets screens for others, he comes off screens, moves, chases the ball, chases handoffs. We focused on that, and being able to get space for himself with moving off the ball.”

In many ways, Quickley is in limbo. His role will be changing. He also could end up being moved if the Knicks can land on-the-block star Donovan Mitchell from the Jazz. It’s a tough spot for a young player, but Quickley is trying to block out the noise.

“We didn’t really focus on what other guys are doing,” Morant said. “We wanted to focus on just bettering himself as a player and how he can impact winning going forward with the Knicks.

“I think he’s an asset to the Knicks in terms of if they want to win games, and he [could] be an asset to a lot of teams. I don’t know what the Knicks are thinking, what they want to do with him or what the situation is. What him and I try to do is be prepared for any situation and any opportunity that comes his way.”