Links: Jennings vs. Rubio, Round One

by Lang Whitaker

I mentioned in the Dirty Thirty that I’ve been on the road, but I didn’t mention where I was. Well, I’m in Barcelona. For now. By the time you read this, I’ll be on the way back to the US of A. I arrived in Barcelona early Wednesday morning, spend all day and night Wednesday working on some secret ish for a future issue of SLAM, and then tonight I went with my main man Kris to the Euroleague game between DKV Joventut and Lottomatica Roma. Oh, and there was a match-up within the game that some of you might have heard about: Ricky Rubio vs. Brandon Jennings.

Kris and I arrived at Joventut’s home arena, the Palau Municipal d’Esports de Badalona, at 8:30 p.m. Most of you probably know the Palau as the home of basketball during the 1992 Olympics, the stadium where the original Dream Team starred. We met up with Ricky’s parents outside the arena (when they heard we were going to be in town for the game, they insisted on giving us tickets — muchos gracias!) and we all walked in together. Walking through the arena hallways, we passed a Joventut team store. I went in looking for a Ricky jersey, but Mrs. Rubio said that since Ricky changed numbers — he used to be number 32, he now wears number 9 — they didn’t have the new jerseys in stock yet. Our seats were directly across from Roma’s bench, six rows from the court. I kept notes on my Sidekick…

• Tip-off is scheduled for 9:15 p.m. I know all sports events start later in Europe than in the States, but I was told this one was late even for Spain.

• Roma is on the court stretching before the game. They spend a good 10 minutes stretching in unison. Joventut runs out onto the court and when Ricky jogs past Brandon he taps him on the shoulder and they exchange smiles. I wonder how those two know each other?

• Behind the Roma bench are two kids rocking home and away Oak Hill jerseys with JENNINGS – 3 on the back.

• Other noteworthy players in this game include…
For Joventut: Former L-Wolves and Indiana swingman Bracey Wright and former McNeese St. guard Demond Mallet (who is Shaq’s cousin, or so he says).
For Roma: Former Michigan St. big man Andre Hudson and former UPenn star Ibrahim Jaaber, plus former BETcats center Primoz Brezec!

• Former Villanova guard Allan Ray was on Roma until last week, but he recently had his contract bought out, so he isn’t around tonight. Roma’s playing with just 10 men. Maybe that’s why D’Antoni likes the short roster: It’s an Italian thing.

• The other bit of drama affecting this game is that Roma’s coach, Jasmin Repesa, resigned earlier this week. He was replaced by Nando Gentile, a native Italian who won all sorts of titles throughout Europe and looks terrific in an Italian suit.

• In his column in SLAM issue 124, Josh Childress wrote about his struggle to find clippers he can use to shave over in Greece. Looks like Bracey Wright is having similar difficulties in Spain.

• It’s cold in Barcelona right now, and it’s really cold in the arena. Most of the fans — I’d guess there were about 8,000 people there? — must have known that the arena gets cold, because they came dressed for a hockey game. An outdoor hockey game. Brandon, who has an endorsement deal with Under Armour, is wearing full-length compression pants under his shorts. I guess David Stern’s rule banning the long pants doesn’t apply in Europe.

• Primoz Brezec punctuates the warm-ups by missing a one-handed dunk. Some things never change.

• Brandon gets the start for Roma, but Ricky does not start for Joventut. Remember when Ricky got hurt in the gold medal game at the Olympics? He ended up needing surgery on his right wrist to fix a banged-up ligament. His parents said he’s a few weeks from being full-strength and only last week returned to active duty. Ricky told me that the main problem is flexing his wrist completely forward, like when following through on jump shots, so he’s basically playing one-handed tonight.

• A cool thing about European basketball: Home teams wear dark uniforms, road teams wear white.

• As the ball is tossed up to start the game, Roma wins the tip and immediately the horn sounds, loud and long and annoying. It keeps blasting but the action keeps going. Brandon misses a three, Joventut comes down and misses a shot, and the ball goes out of bounds with 9:28 to play in the first. That’s when the horn finally stops. So they played the first 32 seconds with the horn blaring in their ears.

• Brandon picks up a quick foul trying to help on a pick and roll, and Coach Gentile goes into an extended animated rant aimed at Brandon. Who is this guy, the Italian Larry Brown?

• First things first: It’s immediately obvious that Brandon Jennings belongs out there with all these guys. He’s just as big, just as quick and can out-jump most of the guys on the floor.

• With 8:11 to go in the first, Brandon picks up his second foul after Joventut’s Ferran Lavina pump-fakes him into the air and leans into him for the contact. Lavina hits the free throws to give Joventut an early 8-2 lead.

• I thought Brandon might get yanked with the two fouls, but on the next possession he dribbles the length of the court through Joventut’s press and hits his teammate Roberto Gabini in the corner for a three. On the next possession he again breaks the press with the dribble and this time finds his teammate Rodrigo de la Fuente in the opposite corner for another three.

• Joventut’s Henk Norel, who looks like a young Rik Smits, gets elbowed in the face and goes down hard. He stays down for a few minutes and finally is helped off the court and into the locker room.

• The Roma coach is on Brandon like his job depends on it, at one point gesturing to him to keep his chin up while dribbling. Andre Hudson hits two free throws to make it 10-10.

• Roma is playing straight man to man defense and not switching many picks. Joventut is mostly playing a 1-2-2 zone.

• With 5:52 left in the first and the score tied at 10, Ricky checks in. Six seconds later he strips Jaaber for a steal. Brandon responds by running out on a break and getting a layup. He immediately goes coast to coast again and scores two more.

• I find myself watching Brandon more than Ricky, because I already know Ricky can play at the next level — I mean, dude was holding his own at the Olympics against the Redeem Team. Brandon’s the more unknown commodity right now, although I’ve watched five minutes of this game and I see no reason he won’t be going in the lottery next year.

• I can’t stop watching Coach Gentile, who looks like he has ants in his pants. I wonder if perhaps he’s so demonstrative so the various nationalities on the team can understand whatever point he’s trying to get across without the language barrier. I’m all the way across the court from him and I know exactly what he’s mad about every time he goes wild.

• Even though he can’t really shoot the ball, Ricky keeps playing tough defense. He’s particularly good at helping away from the ball and then still recovering to get back on his man before he can get a shot off.

• With 2:55 left in the first, Ricky checks out and looks gassed.

• If a player could make an NBA career out of setting moving picks, Primoz Brezec would be an All-Star.

• After a quick break, Brandon checks back in as the first quarter is ending. Ricky checks right back in and this time matches up against Brandon. With the clock ticking down, Ricky grabs a defensive rebound, turns and lofts a gorgeous pass to a streaking teammate that is caught in stride and laid in at the buzzer.

• After one, Joventut leads 26-24.

• Early in the second, Joventut’s Eduardo Hdez-Sonseca, who looks like a poor man’s Roberto Duenas, gets fouled in the post. He turns and throws up a hook shot that swishes through, even though the referees don’t allow the shot. The crowd explodes, and after a few seconds of loud harrassment, two of the refs meet and decide the shot should count after all. They’ve obviously been watching tape of Dick Bavetta.

• As Fake Duenas misses the free throw, Brandon takes off on a sprint to the other end. He beats Ricky down the floor for a layup.

• Ricky’s wearing yellow-and-purple Hyperdunks, by the way. Brandon’s in a pair of white-blue-and-red Under Armour shoes that aren’t out yet.

• Ricky shakes Brandon then drives and dishes for a lay-up. Joventut leads 33-31.

• Whenever Joventut goes zone, Brandon is able to drive at will. If Coach Gentile would turn him loose he’d probably go for 30. To his credit, Brandon’s trying hard to stay within the team concept.

• After a ball goes out of bounds, Primoz Brezec goes nuts and gets hit with a technical foul. Only…it’s not a technical? That was odd — the ref even made the T motion, but nobody shot free throws and the ref never told the scorer’s table.

• During a timeout, the Joventut dancers perform to Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.” During the first quarter they did a dance to “Beat It.” Someone please take away their “I Love The ’80s” CD.

• Bracey Wright gets hot toward the end of the half and scores a few baskets to keep Joventut ahead, until just before the half when Roma’s Luigi Datome hits a three to make it 48-all at the half.

• I can’t find a stat sheet, but by my count Brandon has 8 points and 3 assists. Ricky has 0 points, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 rebounds. Not sure about turnovers for either, although Ricky may have been charged with one after he passed the ball off his center’s hands in the halfcourt offense.

• At halftime, we go down into what I thought Mrs. Rubio was calling the “Beep” area, but I soon figure out it’s the V.I.P area (which is pronounced “veep”). Every NBA game should have champagne, olives, potato chips and finger sandwiches at the half.

• We get back to our seats about two minutes before the second half is starting, and immediately all the lights in the arena go out, other than the advertising boards along the scorer’s table. After a few seconds, the fans start chanting “Forza Penya!” which is something about having a strong team, and then everyone starts holding up their cellphone lights into the air, like they’re at a Springsteen concert. After about 8 minutes, the lights come back on. The clock picks up where it left off with 1:52 remaining in the half, and everyone seems content to pretend the blackout didn’t happen.

• Roma moves ahead on a 3 by Gabini, who looks almost exactly like my man Esteban Batista, complete with the comically large biceps.

• Norel, a.k.a. Fake Smits, has returned from his busted nose with a facemask that looks closer to a hockey goalie mask than a traditional Rip Hamilton mask. Anyway, Norel returns for Joventut and almost immediately gets drilled on a lay-up and goes down holding his knee. After a while he limps off the court and doesn’t return.

• When Norel goes down, Demond Mallet checks in to shoot Norel’s free throws. He makes both and Joventut coach Sito Alonso then tries to sub in Fake Duenas for Mallet. The refs take this personally and all start yelling at Alonso, who immediately becomes conciliatory and leaves Mallet in the game.

• Gabini! He bangs in another to put Joventut ahead 63-54. Brandon and Ricky have both been on the bench throughout the third. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ricky’s done for the night. He’s been playing one-handed, and even though he was effective, it probably makes more sense not to push his luck. Why Brandon isn’t in the game, I have no idea.

• Roma fouls someone on a layup attempt and is called for an intentional foul, which seems like a terribly weak call. Roma GM Dejan Bodiroga, who starred all over Europe and played for the 1996 Yugoslavia Olympic team, stands from his seat on the corner of the court near the Roma bench and screams at the refs. Bracey Wright hits the technical free throw and then a 3. On the next possession, Mallet pulls for a three in transition and drains it, giving Joventut a 71-56 lead with 3:37 left in the third.

• Sani Becirovic gets a 2 for Roma, and then Andre Hudson gets an and-one to cut it to a 71-61 game.

• Hudson nails a long J to make it 71-63. Then, Coach Gentile picks up a T in the middle of a play and goes nuts. The crowd tries to egg him on but Primoz Brezec goes over and gives him a talk and calms him down. I’ll be honest, I never knew Primoz Brezec was such a peacemaker.

• Hudson gets a rebound and scores to cut it back to 8, and then he gets a dunk on a break to make it a 6 point game. The crowd, which has been loudly rooting for Joventut all night, suddenly quiets down.

• The third quarter ends with Joventut on top, 76-69. Neither Ricky nor Brandon got any real burn in the third (BJ played like 30 seconds to start the half).

• Both Ricky and Brandon check in to start the fourth. Brandon immediately tips a pass away from Ricky and then scores to make it 76-73.

• On the next play Primoz Brezec hacks someone on Joventut, but Brandon quickly raises his hand and the refs call the foul on Brandon, saving Brezec a foul. Who says Brandon’s not ready for the NBA? Roma GM Bodiroga is angry a foul was called at all and he starts yelling at the refs again, who have to stop play and go over and talk to him to calm him down. I wish NBA GMs would sit courtside and antagonize refs.

• Brandon gets caught in the post on a switch defending a center and on the first move from the big man, Brandon careens backwards. The Joventut player gets fouled by someone else, and before reporting the foul the refs go over and threaten Brandon with a technical for flopping.

• Moments later, Roma’s Sani Becirovic gets elbowed in the nose and we hear the cracking sound from the fifth row. He immediately runs over the bench and sits down, blood streaming down his face. This is turning into a heckuva game. Joventut clings to a 78-75 lead.

• Ricky swings off a pick and hits Fake Duenas rolling to the rim with a no-look behind-the-back pass for a lay-up. Have I mentioned Ricky just turned 18?

• Brandon keeps driving to the hoop, one time splitting a double team, but he’s not getting any calls when he gets pounded at the rim.

• Mallet makes a three to make it 86-76 with 4:26 left.

• The Roma coach is making odd subs — he keeps putting his best players in for each other.

• The fiery Ferran Lavina, who has vinegar for blood, gets tangled up with Andre Hudson and they briefly square off. Hudson goes to the line and makes two free throws to make it a 10 point Joventut lead, 91-81.

• Just when it looks like the game might be over, Brandon picks up a loose ball around the three point line, jumps into the air and busts a reverse 360 spin, then, before landing, zips a pass under the rim to Hudson for an and-one. If ESPN really was the Worldwide Leader in Sports, that play would’ve made tonight’s top ten on “SportsCenter.” Hudson hits the free throw to make 91-83 with 2:28 left.

• Becirovic scores to make it 91-85. Dos minutes!

• Both teams trade buckets, until it’s 94-89 with 43 ticks left. With 29.6 to go, Bracey Wright fouls Becirovic, who makes both free throws to make it 94-91.

• Bracey gets fouled and makes 1 of 2, to make it 95-91. Then Becirovic scores again to make it 95-93.

• With 17 seconds left, Joventut inbounds the ball and Becirovic fouls to stop the clock. But the refs call it an intentional foul! Was it intentional? Of course it was intentional, but then so is every foul in every game with a few minutes to go. The crowd unleashes a cheer that’s as much surprise as it is excitement. Joventut’s Pau Ribas makes both free throws and puts Joventut ahead 97-93. Joventut inbounds the ball and Roma’s wild coach make a big show of telling his players not to foul. So they don’t, and Joventut dribbles out the clock for a 97-93 win.

• After the game I caught up with Brandon, who agreed that it was a pretty crazy game. As we walk out of the arena over to Roma’s bus, we see those fans in the Oak Hill jerseys. Brandon poses for photos with them, both Spaniards who were fans of Brandon’s game. Respect finds you, even if you’re thousands of miles from home.

• Even though the game seemed like it was going to be a blowout, Roma managed to make it an exciting finish. To me, the two most talented players on the court — hands down — were Brandon and Ricky. Ricky was Ricky, playing his game full of intangibles and moxie, even though he was essentially playing with one hand. I don’t think he even took a shot, but he finished with his normal complement of assists and rebounds and steals. USA Today’s story says Brandon finished with 12 points and 2 assists, though I know that’s wrong because Brandon had two assists in the first four minutes of the game.

While I initially thought Brandon going to Europe might be a bad idea, he’s found a team that’s giving him playing time and letting him learn on the fly. If he’d gotten into a US college or gone to a junior college, he’d probably be allowed to shoot as much as he wants, go up against zone defenses, have a coach catering to him and not be expected to defend the opposing team’s best guards. But now he’s getting a one year crash course in defending pick-and-rolls, handling the travel and the attention, keeping his teammates and coaches happy — basically, what it’s going to be like for him next year in the NBA.

If you could combine Brandon’s offense and Ricky’s defense, you’d have the no-doubt consensus number one draft choice in 2009. Even with their respective strengths and weaknesses, as it stands now I’d take either one of them in the lottery.

And if you missed their initial match-up tonight, don’t worry — I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be seeing these two go up against each other for years to come.