There’s a subtle beauty to Josh Hart’s linear progression into superstardom.

As a freshman, he was a promising contributor, averaging 7.8 points off the bench. As a sophomore, he developed into a reliable starter, complementing the likes of Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston. As a junior, he blossomed into a star – a two-way terror that was the best player on a national championship team. As a senior, Villanova didn’t achieve the same team success as a year prior – but Hart transformed from ‘star’ into ‘megastar.’ He finished the season as one of four Naismith finalists.

Can’t get much better than that, right?

Well, maybe. But it would take a transcendent player to out-Hart Hart at Villanova. Junior guard Jalen Brunson isn’t a lock to exceed, or even match, Hart’s accomplishments as a Wildcat.

But he’s got a real shot.

Frank Mason was a deserving Naismith winner in 2016-17, but one could reasonably argue that Hart was the best player in the country. Mason was a hair better offensively, sure – but he didn’t have near the defensive impact that the 6-6, smothering Hart did.  

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And yet, in Big East play, Hart may not have even been the best player on Villanova. That’s not meant as a shot towards Hart. It’s meant as the ultimate compliment to Brunson.

Check out these conference stats:

Big East: Hart vs. Brunson
Player PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% EFG%
Josh Hart 18.2 6.5 2.9 48.6 38.1 58.4 56.1
Jalen Brunson 16.1 3.2 4.6 55.9 36.8 67.1 61.9

Again, Hart was really good in Big East play. But Brunson shot 65 percent on 2s (reminder: he’s a point guard. Most centers don’t shoot 65 percent from 2-point range).

Brunson’s 2016-17 Big East numbers stack up favorably against Hart’s. Keep in mind: that was Hart’s senior season. It’s reasonable to expect Brunson to improve, like Hart did, as he ages. Here’s a comparison of Hart’s sophomore Big East stats vs. Brunson’s -- because Hart didn't see as much playing time as Brunson, we'll use per-40 stats to level the field.

Player PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% EFG%
Josh Hart 14.9 6.3 1.6 43.3 41.8 56.3 54.3
Jalen Brunson 19.9 3.9 5.6 55.9 36.8 67.1 61.9

One big factor that’s left out of these numbers: defense. That’s a huge part of Hart’s value; it’s not represented here. He guarded – swallowed up, stifled, however you want to describe it -- anyone and everyone. He was as much of a menace in passing lanes as he was on the ball. Brunson is no slouch on the defensive end, but as a 6-3 point guard, he simply can’t provide as much defensive value as Hart can. Brunson isn’t a freak athlete who’s going to blow up the other team’s point of attack; he is, however, good at weaving through ball screens and making life difficult for opposing guards. All of that said, Brunson will never have the defensive impact Hart had at Villanova.

 
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But those offensive numbers are telling. Point guards shouldn’t – and frankly, don’t – post eye-popping efficiency marks like those. In 2017-18, those figures will decrease as Brunson’s volume spikes. He won’t have the luxury of exclusively taking clean looks; as Villanova’s top option, he’ll have to bail the Wildcats out of more possessions when the shot clock is winding down. Or, late in games, he may have to force the issue against a set defense – that used to be Hart’s responsibility.

While Brunson’s efficiency may wane – and again, he could lose five percentage points and still make over half of his field goals – his raw numbers figure to surge. Don’t be surprised if he averages 20 points per game next season; Jay Wright is going to let his point guard navigate ball screens until defenses prove they can stop him. Sometimes, coaching is simple.

The Naismith race figures to be wide open in 2017-18. Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Arizona’s Allonzo Trier, Duke’s Grayson Allen, Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson and Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr. are the most common names thrown out. All are excellent players.

Brunson absolutely belongs in that conversation. Losing Hart is going to sting for Villanova. He’s not easily replaced.

But here’s what we can say about the Wildcats’ next star: he’s even better than you think.

It’s a great time to be a Villanova fan.