When Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson was asked if Josh Hart had changed much in the eight years they had known each other, he feigned exasperation and quickly said no. Then a little smile crept onto his face.
“He’s still a 2-year-old,” Brunson said. “Loves candy. It’s like having — he’s older than me — it’s like having a little brother.”
This was all news to Hart, also a Knicks guard, who countered that Brunson, too, has not changed a bit since college.
“He’s a child, that’s what he is,” Hart said. “He’s the child. I’m like the parent.”
The playful ribbing belies a relationship that was nurtured at Villanova and has remained strong even as the two have taken divergent paths in the N.B.A.
Brunson, 26, was a freshman at Villanova in 2015-16 when Hart, 28, was a junior and they won an N.C.A.A. championship together. Hart made it to the N.B.A. a year later as a first-round pick for the Lakers in a draft-day deal with the Jazz. The next year, it was Brunson’s turn: The Mavericks drafted him in the second round. While Brunson spent the next four years in Dallas, Hart played on three different teams.
This year, Brunson joined the Knicks in free agency and has blossomed into a star who has helped carry the team to its best record since 2013. Hart arrived in February in a trade from Portland and has brought a tenacity off the bench that has helped the Knicks finish the season with optimism despite working through injuries.
Hart and Brunson will have very different but important roles for the Knicks, the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, as they prepare for a first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which starts on Saturday.
“I think that they had a mutual respect for each other just because they’re competitive assassins,” said Kyle Neptune, Villanova’s men’s basketball coach, who was an assistant coach on the team from 2013 to 2021. He added: “They have just a sense of humanity and a sense of purpose and being good human beings. But then when you get them both on the floor they’re just absolute killers.”
The ways Hart and Brunson have excelled with the Knicks reflect who they were as players in college.
Brunson was able to connect well with his teammates back then, too.
“His ability to adapt to new people is partially because he’s the son of a player and a coach that moved around like a military family,” said Baker Dunleavy, who was an assistant coach for Villanova from 2010 to 2017.
He remembered Brunson having a sense of professionalism early on that was rare for someone his age.
But, like he did in his N.B.A. career, Brunson had to wait before he could take ownership of Villanova’s locker room. Jay Wright, the former longtime Villanova head coach, remembered sensing that Brunson was a bit uncomfortable in his first year and that he held back some of his leadership ability because the team already had a point guard — Ryan Arcidiacono, who was a senior at the time. The next year, Brunson seemed more at ease as he took on a leadership role.
“A born leader and just a guy that loved having everybody count on him,” Wright said.
Hart had been named the most outstanding player of the Big East tournament during his sophomore year, and was a third-team all-American his junior year. He sometimes shocked his coaches with the audacity of the shots he took, but they happily accepted the results.
Wright recounted several examples of Hart making big plays in high-pressure situations: regular-season games against top-ranked opponents, pivotal Big East tournament matchups and N.C.A.A. tournament games.
“You just kind of knew this guy fears nothing,” Wright said.
And he did love candy. Once, during a pause in one of Hart’s high school practices, Dunleavy saw Hart reach into a sock, pull out a bag of sour candy and tilt the bag so a few pieces fell into his mouth as if he was taking a sip of Gatorade.
Villanova stressed the importance of good nutrition for their players, Wright said, but he was sure Hart found a way to hide candy in the locker room.
“Don’t even get me started,” he said.
Wright described Hart as more carefree than Brunson, and Brunson as a little more mature.
Brunson spent his first four seasons with the Mavericks. He joined the Knicks as a prized free agent last summer, about a month after the team hired his father, Rick Brunson, who had worked with Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau before as an assistant coach.
The Knicks were penalized a second-round draft pick in 2025 for beginning free agent discussions with Brunson before the league allowed.
Brunson had been an emerging player in Dallas, playing alongside Luka Doncic, but he has thrived being featured more with the Knicks. His per-game scoring average has risen to 24 this season from 16.3 last season, and he is dishing 6.2 assists per game compared to 4.8 last season.
Part of what has made him fit so well with the Knicks is the mixture of humility and confidence with which he plays and leads.
“He’s an honest leader,” Knicks center Mitchell Robinson said. “He knows when he’s right and he’s wrong, so he’s not afraid to admit stuff like that. And you kind of need that.”
Robinson said Brunson texted him last summer to join him in New York for off-season workouts. He didn’t know Brunson before that, but they quickly developed the rapport of longtime friends.
Hart has had an effect on his teams through his versatility on defense and on hustle plays — rebounding, chasing loose balls. He was traded twice before arriving in New York, first to the Pelicans as part of the deal that sent Anthony Davis to the Lakers, and then to Portland.
For most of this season, Hart relished Brunson’s success from afar.
“I think he kind of exceeded everyone’s expectations but his own,” Hart said, adding: “For me it’s just cool because I’ve seen all the work that he’s put in to get to this level.”
On Feb. 8, their paths converged.
Brunson was at Villanova for a ceremony to have his college jersey retired. Someone showed him the news on a phone that the Knicks had traded for Hart. Brunson shouted an expletive and then said “YESSS!” as he raised his arms victoriously. The people around him started to clap.
“Like his big brother was coming home from college or something,” Wright said. “He was so excited. It was genuine, you know. After he saw, he just still kept walking around like: ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe. I can’t believe we have Josh. I’m so pumped we got Josh.’ He didn’t stop the whole night.”
Hart, who had his own jersey retired by Villanova in 2022, had just spoken with Brunson that morning.
“Neither of us, obviously, had any idea that was going to happen,” Hart said. “I texted him just about congrats on getting the jersey retirement. And he actually didn’t even say thank you.”
In New York, Hart fit in immediately. He is now making better than 50 percent of his 3-point attempts, where in Portland he made only a third. His scoring has gone up, even though his minutes have gone down. The Knicks went on a nine-game winning streak starting with the first game Hart played for them.
“I think his game could fit in well anywhere just because of all the things he does,” Thibodeau said. He added: “There’s no agenda other than winning. If you’re open, he hits you. If we need a big shot. He’s what I call a playmaker. Whatever the game needs.”
Now, Hart and Brunson often do their postgame interview sessions together, trading off questions if one of them gets stumped. They sit together on the team plane, and, according to Robinson, tell inside jokes that their teammates don’t understand. Together, they will try to help this Knicks team become the first in a decade to win a playoff series.