Amid uncertainty, Milwaukee and Jennings find a common ground
During the Bucks' 2-0 start, Brandon Jennings was leading the way with NBA-best averages of 13 assists and four steals. The 34 points he scored over those two games --
"It's a humbling experience again for me," Jennings said of his inability to agree to an extension with the Bucks in advance of the Oct. 31 deadline, setting up the 23-year-old point guard to test the free-agent market after the season.
The last time he had so much to prove was during the 2008-09 season, which he spent mainly on the bench as a 19-year-old in Italy. Coming off that experience, he put together a terrific NBA rookie year in which he started every game while leading the Bucks to the playoffs.
"When I went to Europe it was humbling, and this one now -- not getting an extension,'' he said. "So I just go out there and play every game and I just push myself."
So the absence of a new contract was bringing out the best in him?
"Oh, yeah, no doubt," he said. "I can compare this year to the Europe year when I didn't play at all, and I came back from Europe so hungry, just trying to go get it.''
Jennings isn't alone in his uncertainty. The Bucks could make the playoffs and continue to build on the promise of their young roster. Or conspiring events could lead to the departures of everyone from Jennings (who will be a restricted free agent next summer) to shooting guard Monta Ellis (who could opt out to become unrestricted) to coach Scott Skiles and general manager John Hammond, who are each in the final year of their contracts.
"When you use terminology like, 'We're trying to figure it out,' people probably think you've got to be better and you've got to be smarter than to use terminology like that," Hammond said. "But that's where we are. We're a work in progress, and I don't know what road we're going to go down. Can we eventually acquire enough young assets? We have some now, and we're going to have to acquire more. Can we acquire a group that's good enough to contend?"
The Bucks aren't seeking to trade Jennings because they want to keep him and because they're trying to make the playoffs -- trying to win even as they rebuild with youth.
"Everybody wants young players, and they want to see a bright future, but obviously they want to win," Hammond said. "I always talk about what Danny did." He was referring to the course established originally by Celtics president Danny Ainge, which was to rebuild through the draft. Then the Celtics lost the 2007 lottery, and Ainge traded most of his young assets for veterans Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
"He sits here today with a championship and still a very competitive team," Hammond said. "And that's where we want to be someday."
That's the ultimate example of figuring it out along the way. The best plans are subservient to unpredictable events.
The Thunder serve as a model for how to develop a small-market franchise. But the Thunder established their foundation of young players first by picking No. 2 when a franchise player was available, which was fortunate because a star like Kevin Durant isn't on the board every year; and also by losing an average of 55 games for four straight years, which is something the Bucks haven't been willing to endure.
"Oklahoma City was built with the second pick, the third pick, the fourth pick and the fifth pick," Hammond said. "The projection for our team going into the season is, if they don't have us as a playoff team, they have us right at the cusp of being in the playoffs. So we're still trying to serve two masters, to be honest with you. We're trying to win now, we're trying to do it with young talent, we're trying to do it with a fair salary structure.
"A top-five pick has a 42 percent chance of being an All-Star," added Hammond, referring to a 20-year study of NBA drafts. "In the last few years, we haven't been drafting in the top five. We've been in the 10-through-15 range the last four years, and it's difficult to do it that way.
"I hate to say these kinds of things because when you're an NBA general manager and you say we're still trying to figure it out, people say you've got to give me something better than that. But sometimes that is the terminology that is appropriate for what we're going through right now. ... I hate to go to the word luck, but small-market teams still need that luck. You need that lottery ball or that pick to fall your way."
The Cavaliers got lucky with LeBron James. The Magic got lucky with Dwight Howard. And the Bulls won the right to select Derrick Rose No. 1 when they entered the 2008 lottery with the ninth-worst record.
On Wednesday, the young Bucks endured their first loss, 108-90 to visiting Memphis and its behemoth front line. Jennings shot 6-for-20 and finished with 20 points and five assists, and his team was outshot 53 percent to 38.5 percent. The hard work will continue all season long, and no one can say where it will lead.
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The 6-foot-9 Frenchman is averaging 17.5 points and eight rebounds as his Wizards try to survive injuries to John Wall and Nene. Seraphin, 22, played in the Olympics for France last summer.
• He was introduced to basketball as a 14-year-old in French Guiana.
"I used to play soccer," he said, "and one day I was at the school and somebody asked me if I wanted to try basketball. And I just say, Yeah, why not? I was tall, I was 6-foot-4 maybe.
"But I was not taking basketball seriously at first because I wanted to be a fireman. It was because one time I saw them save somebody who got in a crash on the motorway. And I was like, Yeah, I want to be like them. And I wanted to become a fireman.''
He was playing for the youth team of French Guiana when he accepted an invitation to enter a basketball academy in Cholet, France. "First I was shooting almost like Rashard Lewis,'' said Seraphin, coiling his hands back behind his head in demonstration. In Cholet, they taught him to shoot as he does today, releasing the ball straight above his cocked right elbow.
• He learned to respect demanding coaches.
"When I was young, my dad and my mom were really tough with me," he said. "If somebody was not tough with me when I was young, I didn't really respect them. So my parents were tough with me, and then I had a coach from Turkey my first year, a professional coach, and it was hard to deal with him. He was a coach that, if you're hurt and if you don't have blood or something like that, you can play -- you know what I mean? Then I got a Serbia coach, and he was crazy, too. And now I got [Wizards coach Randy] Wittman, and I had Flip [Saunders].
"So that's OK for me. I know they're doing the best for me."
• He was losing confidence until last January, when Wittman replaced Saunders.
"I wasn't playing, then Wittman becomes the coach," Seraphin said. "He tells me, 'Now is your time. You have to play now.' I'm an opportunity guy, so if I get an opportunity I will take it, for sure."
Seraphin averaged 14.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 21 starts last season, including a handful of those games alongside March trade acquisition Nene, whose style Seraphin had tried to emulate over the previous two years.
"We are both mobile, both big, we have movement," Seraphin said of the agility they both developed before they learned to play basketball. "We have almost the same story: He used to play soccer before, and I played soccer, too."
• He loves basketball ... maybe too much.
The best thing about being an NBA player?
"The life," Seraphin said. "Everybody looks at you like you're their hero, so that's a good feeling. You can't complain about the life. You got money, you got everything, so you have just to enjoy it. That's why I don't want to mess up that. Just be a good guy, just play, just do what they want you to do. I enjoy everything. My life is good.
"I love basketball, for sure. During the summer some players told me, 'You have to stop playing,' because they don't want me to get too much basketball. But I can play all summer. When we finish the Olympics, I take three days and then I have to play again. Because I love basketball too much."
"It's just that now you treat everybody like they have on white gloves and pink drawers. It's just getting old, but it's just the way the league is now.''
Williams would go on to explain last Saturday that he understood the logic of erring on the side of caution when dealing with players who suffer a concussion.
"When you're dealing with the brain, I guess what's happening in football, it's impacted everybody,'' said Williams who was fined $25,000 for his comments. "I'm not saying I don't like it -- we've got to protect our players. I'm sure I had four or five concussions. When I played, it didn't bother me. The NBA is doing what's necessary to protect the players, but this is not the NFL. You don't get hit in the head that much. I understand it, but as a coach I'm a baby about it. I want my guys ready to play.''
People in the NBA have an opportunity to show leadership on behalf of players, coaches and administrators in high school and younger grades. While Williams meant no harm, his statements demonstrated that coaches and players in all of the pro leagues -- led by the NFL -- are going through a transition of understanding brain injuries. The old approach of playing through concussions is worse than unacceptable. It is dangerous.
NBA coaches and players need to show an understanding that concussions are more serious than other injuries. They should make it clear that courage and masculinity are no longer relevant to players who are dealing with brain injuries. Young people are particularly susceptible to long-term damage from concussions, and NBA coaches and players need to do more to help create awareness among the players, youth coaches and administrators who look up to them.
Miami at Memphis, Sunday, 6 p.m. ET. An NBA scout breaks down this matchup of the Grizzlies' size vs. the Heat's perimeter stars.
"The Grizzlies are pretty good when they're playing through Marc Gasol and he's passing out of those double teams," the scout said. "He's good enough to hold deep position, he can step out to hit face-up jumpers, and he can hit the cutters. He won't take the ball into trouble on the dribble; instead, he'll take what the double team is giving him and pass out of it.
"If the Grizzlies play through Gasol and the ball is moving, then I've got to believe the Heat are going to have to double-team inside. Because Chris Bosh is going be on Gasol, which means Shane Battier is probably going to be starting on Zach Randolph. Z-Bo is a bull down there under the basket, and I don't know how Battier is going to guard him.
"Miami has some big guys on the bench that they don't tend to use, but I'm pretty sure that they'll have to use them in this game. They might think they can play LeBron [James] at the 4 -- but not against this team, because I think he'll be in trouble trying to guard Z-Bo. Z-Bo is a bear with his back to the basket in the low post. I think Memphis will have him attacking Battier if Miami starts it that way.
"Then it will be the exact opposite deal at the other end -- Memphis will have to get back in transition, and Z-Bo will have to get out to the perimeter because that's where Battier will be. This will be a test of the two philosophies and which one can exist longer.
"I think Miami's the better team, obviously. They're as good as they were last year. For them, this season is going to be about their ability to focus and complete the schedule and be physically and mentally ready come playoff time. But for this one game, if Miami isn't hitting jump shots, then the team with the post-up players will win."
Former Lakers guard Derek Fisher has long been considered a future candidate for public office (if his contentious experiences as union president haven't drummed the interest out of him). Here are current NBA players who appear to be suited for campaigning in the next decade or two.