Jennings blazing his own trail
PHILADELPHIA -- In large white lettering on a black backdrop, the question, doubling as the Reebok All American Camp motif, greets all comers at Philadelphia University: Are You Destined For Greatness? On the left side of the banner stands the familiar image of Brandon Jennings, a 6-foot-2, southpaw showman from Compton, Calif., who stole the scene at last year's five-day camp as the top point guard in attendance. In absentia, Jennings, who currently lives in the New York area after graduating from Oak Hill Academy (Va.) in May, still casts a shadow over the event.
Late Tuesday night, Jennings, who played last summer under the label of an Arizona commit, announced that the travel itinerary for his year-long wait for the NBA will bring him to Europe, not the desert in Tucson, Ariz. "Is that official?" USC coach Tim Floyd asked when informed of Jennings' decision. "Every decision is based on risk and reward. I guess we'll see how it plays out. For others thinking about Europe, I would proceed with caution."
Two years ago, Jennings' recruiting compass spun homeward toward Floyd's Trojan program. Expected to fall in line behind O.J. Mayo in Floyd's flood of talent, Jennings instead decommited from his first verbal, enjoyed a second swing through the recruiting circuit and landed in Lute Olson's lair. Already a transfer from Dominguez (Compton, Calif.) to Oak Hill, the 18-year-old intended to return west for college after two years in Virginia. Olson's freestyle approach to guards attracted Jennings, who said he would be happy to join Jerryd Bayless in a star-studded backcourt. Bayless left Arizona after one season and was drafted No. 11 overall last month.
"I'm sad for college basketball," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "And I'm sad for Lute Olson, who was obviously counting on Brandon."
Jennings did not reach NCAA standards when he took the SAT. When his score jumped after a second test, the NCAA clearinghouse red flagged it as suspicious since the score rose so much. In May, Jennings took the test a third time, but the family maintains the score has not yet arrived. Taking a pre-emptive stance, the family announced Jennings' decision in a midnight statement released through his lawyer, Jeff Valle. Sources close to the decision-making process also suggest that Jennings' concerns did not relate solely to his grades. "Over the course of the last two months I have consulted a number of people in basketball before coming to this decision," Jennings said in a statement.
At 18, Jennings cannot enter the NBA draft as past high school stars have. In order to enter the draft, players must now be 19 and have spent a year outside high school. Unlike last year's freshman class headlined by Kevin Love and Mayo, which enjoyed the marketing spoils of the NCAA tournament and nationwide college basketball coverage, Jennings is stepping into a relative unknown as the trailblazing challenger to the NBA's minimum age requirement.
"We benefited a great deal with our sold out new arena," says Floyd of the one-and-done Mayo, who created headaches with his involvement with agent Bill Duffy and his reputed runner Rodney Guillory. "I think the NCAA benefits and the NBA owners benefit. None of the top high school guys have been exposed from (Greg) Oden on down."
Jennings has not yet announced which country he intends to play in, but he believes his game will profit most from playing abroad rather than downgrading to the NAIA or junior college. Several college coaches with familiarity overseas believe Spain and Greece would pay him at least $300,000 and offer a chance to play competitively.
"I would have great trepidation going over to foreign soil at that age," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "But he'll make a considerable amount in his year not in the NBA. The pro scouts will follow him just the same as any college player. It's just growing up in a hurry. Physically, he'll do things their players don't."
Among the players at the camp, word spread about Jennings' decision. Rising junior Brandon Knight, who has a 4.2 GPA, said, "Right now I think there's a two percent chance I go to Europe. It's just not a fit for me. I like the college path."
Abdul Gaddy, a 6-3, 170-pound guard from Washington's Bellarmine Prep who committed to Arizona last August only to reopen his recruitment, says Arizona is now again among his favorite schools since Olsen returned.
"I wasn't surprised that Brandon announced to leave," Gaddy said. "I don't know what's next. Maybe they'll make a rule about kids not leaving for Europe."