Thursday November 5th, 2009

While passing through Times Square on the eve of the draft last June I ran into agent Bill Duffy, who was finishing a call with Scott Skiles. Duffy was selling the Bucks coach on Brandon Jennings, the 19-year-old point guard whose draft stock was sliding after he played last season in Italy.

"We'd like to keep him in the Top 10," Duffy told me after he hung up with Skiles. "The kid tried something new by going to Europe, and we'd like to see it work out for him."

It was because Skiles and Bucks GM John Hammond recognized potential in the European experiment that they've landed a steal with the No. 10 pick in the draft. Jennings has been Milwaukee's leading scorer and playmaker in their first three games (averaging 22.0 points and 5.3 assists) while making half of his 14 attempts from the three-point line, even though shooting was supposed to rank among his grave weaknesses. "He's a better shooter than Allen Iverson -- I'm talking about the young A.I.," said a rival league scout who rates the 6-foot-1 Jennings as speedy as Iverson. "He has a nice stroke and he can shoot it behind the pick and roll."

"I was a way better player [after the year abroad] because I saw different things and I've been through different situations," said Jennings, now 20. "Even though I wasn't playing, a lot of people didn't see what I did behind the scenes. I had a trainer every day who was working on my shooting. We were doing pick-and-roll situations, things that I would see in the NBA. So when it was time for the [draft] workouts everything just came so easy to me.''

Though Jennings insists he played well in those workouts, he was viewed by many in the league as a poor shooter and a high-turnover point guard who lacked discipline. That view was underscored by his measly averages of 17.8 minutes and 6.3 points while converting 38.1 percent from the field in 43 games in the Euroleague and Italian league last season for Lottomatica Rome, where Jennings spent his first year after high school instead of playing a season in college.

Skiles held a different view. "This is a kid that any moment -- his mother was over there with him, and they could have just said, 'Hey, we're homesick and we're going home,'" said Skiles. "And the fact that he stuck it out, it meant something."

Skiles spent the final year of his career playing in Europe -- he finished the 1996-97 as player-coach of the club PAOK in Thessalonika, Greece -- which gave him insight on Jennings. "That he could fight his way through something that maybe a lot of people couldn't," said Skiles. "Because I'll tell you, I was 32 when I went over there, and hardly a week went by when I didn't think of coming home. I wouldn't have done it; I had a contract, but it can be a difficult environment, and for a kid 19 years old in his first year out of high school to go through that, I think that's something you can admire."

The Bucks gained faith in Jennings based on his responses to a midseason coaching change at Rome and the erratic playing time he earned.

"It's not uncommon for a well-known American player to go over there and all of a sudden the guy is only playing 17 minutes,"said Skiles, who sought advice on Jennings from his Rome teammate Andre Hutson, who, like Skiles, attended Michigan State and was a forward at Lottomatica last season. "I had a couple of long conversations with Andre and he just raved about Brandon, that when it got tough his default mechanism was to get in the gym and work on his game -- and not to get pouty and sulky. For a young player coming into the league, he's going to take some lumps early on and then what do they do? If the default mechanisms are to blame (others) and to make excuses, maybe they stunt their own growth. But if it's, 'Hey, I'm showing up an hour and a half early tomorrow for practice because my shot's not going in, I need to get up 400 jump shots?' Now you've really got something to work with.

"For lack of a better way of phrasing it, he had to eat some humble pie over there. He didn't go there and light it on fire. He goes over there and the first coach was really, really on him all the time; they practice twice a day all year round. So he was tested in an adult environment. I think that's really helped him."

All of this is meant to explain why the Bucks drafted him, and to demonstrate the subtle but important benefits from the year Jennings spent in Europe. It was an extended boot camp that forced him to accept he was no longer "The Man" who was a consensus national player of the year for averaging 32.7 points as a senior at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. His fundamentals improved and he learned to view the court in a different way. "It's more team basketball over there," said Jennings.

But let's not get carried away. His impressive opening-week numbers are likely to shrink. Jennings weighs a skinny 169 pounds, and chasing his opponents through screens will wear him down. Now that Olympian shooting guard Michael Redd is sidelined for at least two weeks by a strained patella tendon, opposing defenses will focus their game plans on Jennings.

"I think I have a better opportunity than a lot of other people who got drafted before me, because I'm playing for a guy who played (point guard) in the NBA and had a great career," said Jennings of Skiles. "I want to be good right away, I want to come in here and make a big impact, I want to lead my team to the playoffs and things like that. But I know there's going to come times when things aren't going to come my way. That's the mental part, you know, to see how strong I am as a person."

That mentality may emerge as the primary blessing of his year away from home. Skiles will be interested to see how long Jennings draws from those foreign experiences, especially now that he's off to such a strong start in the NBA.

"Sometimes the challenge comes if the player has some sort of success, and as a coach you're happy for him and all that -- but you also know there's a lot more there and you want to get more out of him," said Skiles. "So it will be interesting to see with Brandon. Like all rookies he's going to struggle a little bit, but he's immensely talented. As a staff we say, 'What are we going to do if he gets off to a slow start?' And the other thing we say is, 'What are we going to do if he doesn't?'"

Will he make the rookie mistake of believing he's better than he really is? Or will Jennings ignore his fast start and continue to heed the guidance of his coaches? Based on Jennings' season in Italy, the latter path is more likely than the former.

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