By Aggrey Sam
When I was 13, the world–as I knew it–changed forever. I was already somewhat ensconsed into the world of high school basketball (my mother has Washington Post Winter All-Met and Parade Magazine All-American teams from the early ’90s boxed up somewhere in her crib; that makes me feel both old and strange), so I knew about the 6-11 prodigy from Farragut since he was still in South Cackalack. But when Kevin Garnett declared for the NBA Draft and was subsequently picked fifth, it felt like something new was happening. If I was 20 years older, it might have been my Spencer Haywood (or Curt Flood; do the knowledge) moment. While some people at the time simplified the situation as a top prospect not making the grade and being thrown to the Wolves (literally), it really was a case of viva la revolucion. Forget the chip, the MVP, his revolutionary game, his HOF career–KG’s contribution to the game was already solidified just by him not going to juco.
Maybe there won’t be another game-changer like Mike–on the court–in the foreseeable future, but ever since KG took control of his own destiny, a handful of other cats have made an imprint on the game, and not always on purpose or positively. Kobe, by doing the preps-to-pros thing for no other reason than he wanted to, something I took great issue with for a minute. Steph, because while he didn’t leave out of high school, he set the standard for how soon is too soon (word to Damon Bailey and Schea Cotton) to anoint a kid a superstar. Kwame, obviously for being the first high school No. 1 (if it wasn’t him, it would have been Tyson or Eddy), but also for educating the masses, although the Kandi Man tried to teach us (them) that very same lesson. Even Darko, for trying to do the same thing, in case English was a second language. Bron, whose impact is arguably most felt on the grassroots scene, where the proliferation of AAU teams at all age groups exploded after he became a household name, just by coincidence. Then you have Bassy, whose marketing potential shone so bright it blinded reality. Lessons learned or at least in progress.
And now we have Brandon Jennings. By now, you should know about the Cali kid’s decision to play in Italy next season. If not, here’s the quick rundown: Jennings takes the SAT and gets a low score as a sophomore back in LA at Compton Dominguez, transfers to Oak Hill and does much better on the test as a senior who is signed to Arizona, new score is “red flagged” and while waiting for the results of his third test, he considers the option of playing pro overseas, which he ultimately decides to do, signing a contract with Virtus Roma in Italy last week. With the NBA closing the door on high school kids entering the pro ranks, Brandon’s move marks a significant point in the GE (Garnett Era). It was assumed that other than prep school and junior college, high school ballers had no other options when it came to playing ball if they didn’t qualify to immediately (while Prop 48 no longer technically exists, there are kids every year–Dwyane Wade was one–who sit out their first season) hoop in college. That was never really true, but while there were always rumblings about basketball academies and American high school kids going pro overseas (most notably linked to Sonny Vaccaro, who fittingly is advising Jennings), this is the first time it’s been put into practice.
Now, playing overseas is no piece of cake. Not only will Jennings be playing against grown-ass men (his biggest weakness is his weakness), but it’s a much different style of play than the AAU/camp/high school game he’s accustomed to. When you add in the language barrier, the travel, schedule, being away from home, adjusting to not being that dude every time he’s on the court and the overall pressure of the situation, there’s ample opportunity for him to fall flat on his face. His perceived NBA potential (projected top-five pick in ’09) could take a drastic dip and worse, it could negatively affect personally, as he’s still only 18. That said, if there had to be a guinea pig for this experiment, there’s none better than Brandon Jennings.
Without ever visiting either place, I can confidently say that living in Rome is better than living in Mouth-of-Wilson, Va., especially if his mom and little brother (who may get a spot on Virtus Roma’s junior team) come with him and even if they don’t, as the squad has American players (Dave Hawkins from Temple, Allan Ray from Villanova and Ibby Jaaber from Penn were all on the team last season) that will help the adjustment process. And with Oak Hill being somewhat of a traveling road show, he’s already used to the travel, having a target on his back and a long (for high school standards; they play about 40 games a season) schedule, not to mention that being there for two years while playing in camps and tournaments all summer, he hasn’t really spent all that much time at home anyway. On the court, his creativity and unselfishness (he jacks if he thinks his scoring is necessary to win) bodes well for immediate and plentiful tick if he keeps the And-1 shit to a minimum, as the team’s starting point guard from last year, Roko Ukic, is headed to this side of the Atlantic. In addition, his charisma and brash personality should win him plenty of fans off the top. I’m not saying he’s gonna get Ricky Rubio love, but from talking to him and watching him play, I know he’s gonna be must-see TV.
As for his stock dropping, that should be the least of his concerns. Forget what kinda numbers he puts up–playing with better and more mature talent, his development will be greatly accelerated. He has no choice. Arizona is a big-time program and everybody knows it’s Point Guard U. (Gil, Damon, Jet, Bibby, etc.), but playing Oregon State isn’t the same as playing savvy vets like Pepe Sanchez or Scoonie Penn. And since he was most likely out after his freshman year anyway, what’s the better education? Speaking of one-and-done, let’s think about his future. If he gets seriously hurt as a freshman, even if he comes back strong as a sophomore, his stock drops. If he gets hurt in Italy, he makes six figures. He can pay for college if he wants. Think Bill Walker doesn’t wish he made the same decision? Realistically, even without having incredible success in Italy, he’s still a lottery pick next year. Pro scouts know the competition, they know his game and he will have a chance to prove himself in pre-draft workouts. Their games are apples and oranges, but if Alexis Ajinca can go 20th with his numbers, I’m convinced Brandon will get his three years guaranteed.
The parties involved–a potential superstar (as far as being a true point guard goes, I like Jennings more than Rose), the NBA, the NCAA, Sonny Vaccaro, the father of a current NBA player (Jersey’s Marcus Williams), Lute Olson and Arizona–make the entire saga seem more complicated than it really is. Bottom line, the kid is becoming a man and is making a man’s decision. If he can be legally executed, buy cigarettes and fight in a war, he can decide if he wants to work, go to school or live in this country. The League’s arrogance has been out of control for some time now–such as the non-transparency on the Donaghy scandal–but it took an 18-year-old (witness vets who are products of the same system pondering the same move; and if he’s successful and kids like Renardo Sidney and Lance Stephenson are paying attention–and you know they will be–we might be talking about the Jennings Era in a few) to call its bluff. They just better hope he decides to come back. If anything, I know Danny Ferry feels him.