Brandon Jennings Decides to Look Out for No. 1

By Ryan Jones
About a month ago, I spoke to Brandon Jennings for the “Big Punk” that ran in SLAM 120 (on newstands now, if I’m not mistaken). The Oak Hill Academy star and everybody’s All-American (ours included) was the last kid from the class of ’08 to hold the lead feature spot in our monthly high school section, which had nothing to do with us forgetting about him (hardly — he originally appeared in SLAM as a freshman) and everything to do with us saving (arguably) the best and (undeniably) most colorful kid in the class for last. His combination of sick, entertaining game and strictly entertaining personality made him one of our favorite prep players to watch the last four years, and we were happy to have him close out our coverage of the ’08 class in style.

I asked Brandon most of the questions I usually ask top high school players, including a few questions about college: Why he chose Arizona, what he expects next season, the likelihood of going one-and-done. It didn’t occur to me to ask him if he might not end up going to college after all. Now I wish it had.

After I got over my initial disappointment at not having known about this earlier—I don’t know if this was even in Brandon’s mind when we spoke last month, and I can’t blame him for not volunteering it—I felt one thing: Happy. Happy that a kid in Brandon’s situation was actually considering a move that could take care of himself and his family without having to take part in NCAA-sanctioned hypocrisy while also bypassing the NBA’s immoral and self-serving age minimum. He’s not the first to consider it, or at least be connected to the idea: There were (bogus) rumors of LeBron testing the Euro waters after his junior year, and, more realistically given their high school eligibility issues, plenty of talk of OJ Mayo and Bill Walker spending a sort-of postgrad year overseas.

Unsurprisingly, Sonny Vaccaro (who apparently indirectly inspired Brandon to consider this) is the tie that binds all these kids. The NCAA hates Sonny, which is only one of the reasons we’ve always loved him. The biggest, of course, is that Sonny did his best to flip the system (in which talented kids get pimped by the Double-A, the NBA gets free marketing for its future stars, and the kids get nothing until—or more correctly, if—they make the League) in the kids’ favor. Sonny’s not perfect, and he certainly did well for himself while helping a couple generations of ballplayers make their names, but the spirit of his work can’t really be questioned.

Anyway. Neither Brandon nor anyone else apparently knows where he’ll be playing ball next season, and he could certainly end up in Tucson after all. A year (or two) under Lute Olson’s watch would hardly be the worst way an up-and-coming guard could spend his time, and it’s not like there aren’t potential drawbacks of a year in Italy or Spain. Yes, the cultural differences could be tough to deal with. Yes, his AAU-seasoned game might not be ready for the more fundamental European style. And yes, most significantly, he might be exposed as overmatched against the mostly second-tier pros in the top Euro leagues, which could do serious damage to his eventual NBA Draft prospects.

But here’s the issue—the only issue that should matter: If Brandon Jennings chooses to skip college and play professionally in Europe next season, it’ll be his choice. In the current set-up of American basketball—which I might describe as collusion between the NCAA and NBA, if I knew what that word meant—Brandon had his choice of colleges, but he never really had a choice. Despite being talented enough to make money playing this game right now, a kid in his situation has to “choose” to play at least one season for free before he can get paid to play in the world’s top league. There are risks if he jumps the Atlantic, but again, it’ll be his choice—a legitimate choice to make a living, which some might even call a “right.”

Whatever he does, Brandon will be looking out for himself—as he should. I don’t imagine he’ll be looking to make a statement or strike a blow against the racket that is the NBA/NCAA monopoly on Stateside basketball—he’s simply going to be doing what he thinks best for him and his family. But if he does jump, it will make a statement—to the kids who follow him, and to the college hoops overlords, and especially to the League. It’ll be a statement of independence, and a threat to the status quo. If it works, and other top prep players follow suit, it might even force the L to finally changes its rules to be fair, logical, and in the best long-term interests of its own product. Maybe Stern and Co. would finally get around to spending some real time and money on grassroots development with, say, an NBA youth academy, in which those kids with the most potential would be fast-tracked from junior high and taken out of the NCAA pipeline, leaving the kids who make it better prepared for NBA life on and off the court, and leaving the college game to kids who actually need to go to college.

Or maybe not. It’s just a thought.

Either way, I’ll be rooting for Brandon Jennings next season, whether he’s balling for the Arizona Wildcats or Armani Jeans Milano—and I’ll be hoping that even the threat of that second option will send a little chill up the spines of suits in New York and Indianapolis.