SLAM 135: Criticized just months ago for bypassing college, Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings has become a success story.
It’s all in the past: The hot start, the 55-point game, the cold stretch, the Playoff knockout. The first chapter of Brandon Jennings’ career is over. If what’s to come is anything like what was—and there’s no reason to think otherwise—we’re all in for a treat in the seasons to come. So keep your eyes locked on No. 3.–Ed.
by Adam Fleischer
It’s early December in Washington, DC, and while the locals might be most concerned about their football team’s season going down the drain, sports fans everywhere are still feeling the buzz from two and a half weeks earlier, when Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings—in town for a match-up with the Wizards—transcended the world of basketball when he poured in 55 points on the defenseless Golden State Warriors. Jennings couldn’t miss, and people couldn’t get enough of him in subsequent days; his name reached number one trending topic status on Twitter and became the 31st-most searched term on Google. He was also named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. It seemed every major newspaper and website had mention of the feat.
Although just a short time ago, something about that night feels curiously distant today. Brandon and the Bucks have come back to earth a bit and prepare for the Wizards as losers of four of their last five games. During that span, Jennings has shot just 30 percent from the field and failed to score more than 20 in any game—a far cry from the magical performances he and the Bucks were putting on in the season’s early days.
“It’s just a bad week in the NBA,” says the slender point guard, some 24 hours before he tries to help the team get back on the right track. The connect four that they’ve just surrendered is the first true losing streak that Jennings has faced since entering the League. “Everybody has their weeks, and everybody has their ups and downs. That’s one thing about the NBA: It’s an up and down season. You’re gonna go through your stretches where you win some and lose some. It’s just how you bounce back.”
Trust that he knows. Bouncing back is something that the Compton, CA, native has become well versed in for someone his age. He lost his father before he was 10, had a bout with culture shock and erratic playing time while in Rome last season, and, thanks to a few incidents, choice words and a rush to judgment by many this past summer following the Draft, was galaxies away from being the darling in the media’s and fans’ eyes that he has since become.
The criticisms began with a decision to play professionally in Europe instead of for free in college. They continued on the back of reported discontent and numbers said to be representative of a role player, not a star. More talk came after Jennings made pre-Draft proclamations about Ricky Rubio’s hype and a post-Draft videotaped personal phone call with rapper Joe Budden. Thanks to a hot introduction to the NBA in the season’s first few weeks, though, much of that has changed.
“That’s how it is with the media,” the 20-year-old Jennings knowingly states in an elegant function room at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. “One day they love you, one day they ready to tear you down. I just play basketball, so I couldn’t care less what people are saying about me. I’m in the NBA.” He cracks something bordering on a smile. “I’m where I dreamed of being since I was 3 years old.”
It took much to realize that dream, including the Italian job, when he grappled with what have become well-documented ups and downs during his season between high school and the NBA playing for Lottomatica Roma. What many seemed unable or unwilling to grasp—as they saw the mundane stat lines, read quotes out of context and assumed confidence was cockiness and frustration was regret—was the invaluable big picture experience Jennings was gaining in Rome. We’re talking more than basketball, the sort of learning experience that comes with moving away from all that you’ve ever known, with the exception of Mom, Baby Bro and the game you love, and planting yourself an ocean and way of life away. The sort of experience that you can only truly understand if you’ve lived it.
Most were uninterested in even trying to understand. Here’s the thing: Most of us are lazy. We read or hear something and too often accept it on face value, without wanting to know more. This writer was fortunate enough to see, and speak with, Brandon and his mother in person last season, and was struck by his potential on the court and his poise off it. Having missed that opportunity, however, many NBA fans, analysts and GMs were all culpable in misreading this young man.
A select few avoided the trap, sticking by the side of the player who would be chosen as the face of Under Armour’s nascent basketball line from the beginning. “Sonny Vaccaro stuck with me the whole time,” Jennings says of the man who initially encouraged him to take his game across the pond for a year. “My agent, my mother, my brother, my family, close friends and true fans. And all the guys who are in the basketball department at Under Armour—to take a chance on me and stick with me that whole year even when things weren’t going my way—I think that shows a lot on their part. I really respect them for that.”
In the early stages, it seems that UA’s decision to ride with the Young Buck, as well as Brandon’s choice to make his own path, have paid off. And new praise for the move is shooting out from all sides as quickly as a flick of the left wrist on a Jennings three-pointer. The questions have come, too: Should more high schoolers follow in his footsteps? Could he have changed the basketball landscape?
“It’s a grown-man decision that you have to make on your own,” he says, broaching a topic that, at this point, must make him blue in the face (although if it does, he hides it well). Over-referenced as it may be, the decision and its results can’t be overlooked.
Not only was Brandon under the tutelage of veteran coaching, but he reaped the benefits of a different style and culture of basketball that helped shape a mentally tough demeanor. That’s right—despite statistics seeming to say otherwise, it was actually the European game itself that should be given some credit for what we’ve been witnessing recently.
“If you’re not winning, they’re not happy,” he recalls. Without downplaying the value placed on winning here in the States, he highlights the “We, not Me” attitude that pervades the European game. “They don’t care how many points you score or anything like that. Winning is the most important thing.”
There’s no arguing that that mantra—absorbed firsthand during two-a-day practices and time cheering from the sidelines—has stuck with Jennings thus far in his NBA career. Whenever there’s been talk of the Rookie of the Year Award, he dismisses it, instead favoring a subject sure to please Beer City residents and anyone involved in the Bucks organization: getting this team back to the Playoffs. That, along with making Andrew Bogut an All-Star, are two of his main goals for the year. The mindset of a true point guard.
Don’t let the double nickel fool you. To the kid, it really is about winning. You can read the frustration on his face and his Twitter page after losses. You can see the hunger and courage in his eyes during the tough times. And there have been losses.
The Bucks trip to the Verizon Center is a chance to turn things around. Playing to a moderately packed arena, the 6-1, 170-pound Jennings asserts his will to varying degrees of success throughout the first three quarters. Shots that fell two weeks ago are no longer dropping, but the game is the same. Take open (and sometimes, not open) jump shots. Dribble around the screen to get the defense off balance, then find an open teammate or take it to the cup. Unleash the teardrop runner of someone 10 years your elder which, even on misses, creates opportunities for offensive boards and put-backs for teammates.
“He’s been able to get in areas where he was getting before, he’s just missed them, which is understandable,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles says shortly before getting tossed from the game in the opening quarter.
“He’s a work in progress on the defensive end,” the former point guard acknowledges, somewhat prophetically. “He’s got good feet and good hands, but, typical of young players, he relaxes a little bit too much sometimes [and] guys go by him.”
A one-point Bucks lead heading into the fourth quarter has devolved to a three-point deficit with 10 seconds to go. Despite a 1-7 night from beyond the arc to this point, Jennings takes the inbounds and nails a ridiculous 25-foot off-balance three to tie the contest. It’s telling when a player puts up a shot and you feel it’s going in; it’s a straight-up surprise if it rattles out. You’re not supposed to feel like that. But that’s the way this kid makes you feel.
On the very next possession, though, he’s unable to stop his man, as Earl Boykins earns a trip to the line for the game-winning free throws. High becomes low; up turns to down. The Bucks fall, 104-102. The rook finishes with 17 points, 7 assists and no turnovers.
A veteran of the NBA, Boykins, too, for separate reasons, chose to take his game to Italy last season. The two met three times. “I knew that he would play much better over here, because there’s more room,” explains Boykins, just minutes removed from using a savvy fake to get Jennings off his feet. “When he was over there, I talked to him and I just told him, ‘You use this as a learning experience. When you’re over here [in Italy], you’re in a year-long training camp.’”
Wizards star Gilbert Arenas calls Jennings “a better Kenny Anderson, ’cause he can shoot the ball” (not surprisingly, Brandon watched videos of the New York City legend as a youngster). After the buzzer sounds, Agent Zero puts his arm around the one-time would-be Arizona Wildcat near center court and takes a walk. “I was just telling him [to] keep playing hard,” he explains. “They’re gonna start attacking you different but just work and play through it. Don’t get frustrated with yourself.”
Wise words from a decent man. Of course, the southpaw hasn’t had enough time to digest them, as the frustration from the foul and another Bucks loss seems to be there after the game. “I thought he jumped into me, but sometimes that happens. We weren’t getting calls all night,” he says.
Passing the brunt of burden to the ref and a whistle helps remind that this is a young cat. Sometimes, with his play and composure, it’s easy to forget. And, while he may be correct in his assessment of the foul, or lack thereof, it still feels misplaced for some reason. Maybe it’s because we expect, justified or not, that our stars take all responsibility.
But you’re not supposed to be a seasoned vet when it’s not even legal for you to buy a drink after the game. Yes, there are victories, scoring explosions and electrifying moves. But there are also bumps, bruises, mishaps and learning experiences.
Most dudes Brandon’s age do their learning in a classroom. He does his in an arena full of fans. The dynamic is a little different.
“It’s inevitable,” says Skiles. “Rookies will have ups and downs. If it’s handled properly, I think it’s good for their development.”
“Even since training camp, you can tell he’s more confident,” says part-time back up, part-time backcourt mate Luke Ridnour. “He’s always been confident, but you can tell he’s starting to understand the NBA game. It’s early, but it’s been fun playing together.”
It sure looks like Jennings is developing, having fun. And why not? He is, after all, living his dream.
“Overseas,” he says, “if you’re not doing nothing, nobody’s going to be talking about you. You could be forgotten.”
He pauses, as if to think back to a time which, at this moment in the media blitz, must feel more than oceans away. “Like I was for a minute,” he continues. “But luckily I learned and now it’s starting to show.”
The learning will continue, as will the show. In more ways than one, Brandon Jennings has arrived.