The Truth About Jennings

by Ryan Jones

The, um, “news” broke Friday in a New York Times story headlined “Brandon Jennings Sends Home a Warning From Europe.” The gist, if you haven’t seen it, is that Jennings has some regrets about skipping college and jumping to Italy for a year of pre-NBA professional hoops. Specifically, Jennings laments:

“I’ve gotten paid on time once this year… They treat me like I’m a little kid. They don’t see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you might not play a lot. Some nights you’ll play a lot; some nights you won’t play at all. That’s just how it is… I don’t see too many kids doing it. It’s tough man, I’ll tell you that. It can break you.”

Well, fair points, and, as they’ve come straight from the player’s mouth, none I can argue with. If you care to, you might remember that I came out pretty hard (twice, actually) in support of Brandon making this jump, which put me firmly in the minority among media folk. As such, I guess I should be feeling a little humbled by this news. But I find I’m not. Not really.

The one thing I’ll cop to is giving European basketball teams (or this one, at least) too much credit for being able to CTC on time. I knew the rep of Euro teams frustrating their players with late (or non-existent) payments, but I guess I was convinced by the fact that this deal got so much publicity—not to mention the benefit of Sonny Vaccaro’s involvement—that the folks at Lottomatica Virtus Roma would’ve stepped up. Apparently they haven’t, which seems awfully short-sighted for them as a club, and for European hoops in general. If they were handling things better, it might’ve made Europe a much more attractive destination for the kids in the Class of ’09 and beyond who will, and still might, consider following Brandon’s lead.

So, my bad on trusting some Romans to pay their bills (I also didn’t foresee the global financial crisis that would bring the Euro down to the level of the weak dollar, thus making the decision a lot less lucrative — but then, hey, neither did Alan f*cking Greenspan). Otherwise, though, this latest blurb in the Brandon Jennings story has only reinforced for me how much someone, anyone needed to challenge the NCAA. I had it in mind Friday night when I watched ’09 stud Renardo Sidney (one of the kids who had been pretty seriously considering the Euro option, although he apparently isn’t now) and his Fairfax squad run through 2010 Louisville signee Jeremy Tyler and San Diego High on ESPN. Sidney, of course, is the insanely skilled big man who’s on the Amar’e Stoudemire pace for career high school stops, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him (with Sonny’s blessing) give Europe a try. That he probably won’t now is fine; if he finds a college situation he’s happy with, and if a year or two in the NCAA helps him prepare for the NBA, more power to him.

Then came Saturday night, when I sat in the press room before the Penn State-Iowa game and saw ESPN scrolling the Jennings’ “warning” as some sort of breaking news along their bottom-line feed. This was during the broadcast of a college basketball game (Wisconsin-Illinois, I think) so it made such beautiful sense for the network of universal coach apologists like Dickie V (who I mostly like, honest) and Big Monday and everything else to run snippets of Jennings’ quotes. If you didn’t actually read the Times story, and only saw the ticker (or read the follow-up gloating of some national columnists), you’d think Jennings was on the next boat home, a miserable, apologetic prodigal son.

Except, here’s what the ESPN crawl didn’t mention, and what the Times story sort of buried:

Jennings acknowledged that the journey had helped him mature, and he said the rigors of playing in Europe may benefit others…

An N.B.A. assistant coach who has been to Europe and has watched Jennings play said his potential draft standing had not been harmed. “I think it is good for him. He was getting a defensive component that he needed. If I was a scout and I needed a point guard, I would be extremely impressed with what he has done over there.”

So he’s homesick, and he’s had to accept a different role than he was used to, and his coach doesn’t respect him, and his playing time isn’t guaranteed. I imagine all of that sucks. I’d also point out that those are exactly the same reasons why dozens of D1 kids each year transfer from one school to another, or drop out altogether, but I digress — and I give Brandon credit both for surviving it, and manning up enough to admit it. I didn’t need more reasons to like the kid, but there you go.

But then, oh, by the way: Jennings acknowledged that the journey had helped him mature. Well, that’s something, right? And then, the NBA assistant, saying he was “extremely impressed” by what Jennings has done in Europe. If I’m following this correctly, Jennings will come back from eight or nine months in Europe a more mature person and a more well-rounded player — AND he got paid (even if it wasn’t always on time) something like $1 million for his trouble? That doesn’t actually sound so horrible, does it? I hope I’m not the only one who’s offended by a predictably one-sided take on this.

Listen, I love college basketball. I don’t want to see the sport collapse, and I know there’s plenty of value (both tangible and intangible) in kids going to school and playing ball. I don’t want to see the best American high school kids playing in Europe. But I am immovable in my certainty that the NCAA takes advantage of many of these kids, that college coaches and entire programs sell their players a bill of goods and then don’t follow through (ask Eric Gordon how he liked his year at Indiana), and that anything that challenges the system is, and remains, a good thing.

Oh, and I wish the media didn’t suck. But I know better.