The Trailblazer

by October 06, 2008
2

by Jeff Fox

The most interesting aspect of this upcoming basketball season is the story of the trailblazer. No, not those Trailblazers, although the last remaining NBA team in the Pacific Northwest does look poised to make some noise. Rather, the trailblazer in question is SoCal point guard supreme Brandon Jennings.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (a rock without a Wi-Fi connection) you’ve heard all about Jennings eschewing his scholarship to the University of Arizona to instead go and play professionally for Lottomatica Roma in Italy. By being the first high schooler to take this path to the NBA, he is truly a pioneer. How he does this season in Rome won’t only just affect his stock in next June’s NBA draft, but will also influence hundreds of future high school stars’ decisions on their future.

Before we get into all of that, we should first have a brief orientation on what type of situation Jennings is getting himself into in Europe. The best basketball played outside of the NBA takes place in the Euroleague and it has become commonplace for at least one of its teams to beat a NBA squad in preseason games every year. The Euroleague is a 24-team league consisting of the top club teams (including Roma) from the various domestic leagues throughout Europe. Last year’s champion, and this year’s early favorite, is the Trajan Langdon-led CSKA Moscow. As luck would have it, Jennings’ Roma squad has been placed in Group C alongside DKV Joventut and their point guard phenom Ricky Rubio. So on October 29th and December 11th the two best point guard prospects in the draft, and potentially the two best prospects period, will go head-to-head. Group C also is home to several former NBA players, including Casey Jacobsen and Gordan Giricek.

Roma also plays in the very tough Italian domestic league, which tips off this Sunday. While it isn’t quite on the level of the league in Spain, or the up-and-coming one in Russia, Italy is still a top league in the world. Rosters in the Italian league can have a total of four import players (players from outside of Europe), two players with European passports and the rest of the roster comprised of Italians. Because of the limited rosters spots for imports – and because of the high salary these players normally command – a lot is expected out of them – and quick. Just look at the negative press that is already being heaped upon Josh Childress after a couple of subpar EXHIBITION games. A lot of times underperforming imports don’t even last a full season before they are jettisoned back home in order for the team to sign another player to fill their slot.

You would be hard-pressed to find a greater authority on all things Italian hoops than the Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Raptors, Maurizio Gherardini. Before heading across the ocean for Canada, Gherardini was the GM for Italy’s Benetton Treviso, leading the team to four Italian League titles and four appearances in the Euroleague’s Final Four. He knows all about the expectations an import playing in the top leagues in Europe faces.

“The import player is supposed to always have a significant impact for the team he’s playing for, both in terms of stats and leadership,” explains Gherardini. “The fact that each league is now allowing more import players compared to the past has somehow lowered the pressure but the media and the fans are always looking at the import players as the “keys” of a team success.”

While NBA rules prohibit him from commenting directly about Jennings, he does admit that an import point guard has even more pressure on him:

“Of course such a role (as an import) becomes even more impacting if the foreign player is a point guard, since it’s a guard-controlled game most of the time.”

So the pressure on Jennings will be immense, compounded by the fact that he is still a teenager and this will be his first taste of pro ball. But this added pressure, not to mention the extremely high level of competition he’ll be going up against (yes, even higher than NCAA D1 ball) will only make him a better player in the long run. No doubt he will also falter, at least in the early going, considering he is going up against players with 10-15 years pro experience and more mature bodies, who also all possess top level skills and talent to boot.

The youngster does have some positives on his side, besides his unreal talent. He’ll be coached by one of Europe’s top talents, Croatia’s Jasmin Repesa, who isn’t afraid to let his teams get out and run.

“Jasmin Repesa is a well respected and experienced coach who has been able to win championships in Croatia, Turkey and Italy,” states Gherardini. “He has been able to lead the Croatian National Team to the Olympics as well. He knows the game, he’s a good teacher and he always finds the way to get the most out of his players, allowing them more freedom than people would expect.”

With a schedule normally consisting of only one Italian League game along with one Euroleague game per week, Repesa will have plenty of practice time to school Jennings on the finer points of the game. It is not unusual for Euro teams to practice twice a day and the amount of time they tend to spend practicing dwarfs what takes place on North American courts. It’s no accident that the majority of the Europeans who have gone abroad to play in the NBA enter the League with superior fundamental skills.

Additionally, a lot of the load will also be taken off Jennings due to the fact that he has two former NBA players as teammates–Allan Ray and Primoz Brezec. While it will still be Jennings job to run the team, Ray and Brezec will most definitely take much of the scoring load off of his back.

While it is really premature to speculate whether playing in Italy was the right move for Jennings, at first blush it looks like a solid choice. Not even considering the swollen bank account he’ll come home with, BJ should be better off by playing a season against grown men while learning how to run a professional basketball team within the team-oriented European style of play that emphasizes strong fundamentals. Also to not be discounted, learning the game in Italy worked out well for another American–that guy who calls himself “Black Mamba.”

But, obviously, the most pressing question at hand is “Are there any barbers in Rome how know how to cut a high top fade?”

Jeff Fox writes more extensively about the NBA draft and college basketball at www.collegehoopsnet.com. All hate mail can be directed to him at foxyjj@sympatico.ca.