Driven and talented, Jennings still searching for way to the top
BOSTON -- The large gym was empty, apart from Brandon Jennings and Milwaukee assistant coach Jim Boylan and the echoing of the ball in between them. How many players were enjoying themselves in Orlando right now? How many others were lolling on a beach at some expensive resort? Jennings thought about all of this as he worked while others played and rested.
"It actually motivated me," said Jennings, the Bucks' 22-year -old point guard. "I'd be working out, I'd see highlights from the All-Star Game and it would make me work harder. I took a lot of positives out of it, just the fact that I was the only one in the gym and in the weight room working every day."
Jennings had been hoping to spend the long weekend in Orlando. "If you're a coach and voting, you had to look at Brandon's numbers and say he's having a very, very good year," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. "On the other hand, you also look at our record (14-21), and there's some fairness in that. I know when I vote I'm looking at both of those things. But the way you answer that, when you don't make it, is you play even better and you make people look bad for not voting for you. And the next year you're in."
The new goal for Jennings was to look ahead to next year's All-Star Game by focusing on the games that matter this year. That's why he was in the Bucks' facility working out from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. "It just made me realize I need to work harder," Jennings said of his weekend away from Orlando. "I thought I put in a lot of work this summer, but maybe it wasn't enough. Maybe I need to get back to the drawing board this summer to do whatever I didn't do."
Going into this shortened season, Jennings had added 15 pounds of muscle, which enabled him to withstand the strain of this difficult season with enough energy to work throughout the All-Star break. Would Jennings have been an All-Star had Bogut and Jackson been playing alongside him all season? If the Bucks were able to draw from their full roster, predicted Jennings, "I think we'd be between sixth, seventh, eighth."
As it was, they were ninth in the conference and 2 1/2 games behind the No. 8 Celtics when they met here Wednesday night. It was the first of a half-dozen games against likely playoff teams in the East -- a stretch that will probably decide the outcome of Milwaukee's season.
"I didn't get a chance to make the All-Star Game, so I felt like I needed to just work harder and hopefully we can get to the playoffs the second half of the season," said Jennings. "The fact that it's a short season, I don't think there's time to take any time off right now."
Jennings was up against Rajon Rondo, a three-time All-Star who produced a triple-double of 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists amid more talent than the Bucks were able to put on the court. Jackson was home with an injured hamstring, Luc Mbah a Moute was sidelined by a sore left shoulder and Drew Gooden (23 points and eight rebounds) played in spite of a horrible fall on his back Tuesday night in Washington that had him coughing up blood. Jennings focused on feeding Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova (25 and 10) while Jennings was scoreless on six shots from the field before hitting successive transition threes in the final 91 seconds to propel a 13-0 run. "That's part of the growing process for me,'' said Jennings of his decision-making. The Bucks pulled within two points before losing 102-96.
The balance between what Jennings should do and what he can do has been hard to define throughout this fractured season. The Bucks were 7-5 with center Andrew Bogut before he suffered a broken left ankle Jan. 25. His absence and the falling-out between Skiles and forward Stephen Jackson combined to put a larger burden on 6-foot-1 Jennings, who leads the Bucks with 17.9 points, 5.4 assists and 35.1 minutes. He is also shooting a disappointing 39.9 percent.
"There are nights where we struggle to score, and he's got to be able to get something going for us out there and so I know he feels the burden of that," Skiles said. "We give him freedom to play, and also we point out where maybe there are some shots he shouldn't take, and we go over those with him right at that moment. He took an unconventional route here and he's far from a finished product right now. And the encouraging thing is he works on his game."
The unconventional route was Jennings' decision to spend his first year out of high school playing professionally in Italy. Considering that his stock in the 2009 draft fell as a result of him playing off the bench in Rome, he has turned out to be performing better than many imagined he could as the No. 10 pick of the Bucks. As a rookie, he led Milwaukee to the playoffs and in his debut month he famously scored 55 points in a win against the Warriors.
"He should be a senior in college," Skiles said. "He's brought it up several times about that first three weeks of his rookie year where he put everybody back on their heels. In hindsight maybe that wasn't the greatest thing. It put him on the map, but all of a sudden if he has a so-so game, it's, 'What's wrong with him?' Well, there's nothing wrong with him. He's going through a natural progression that a lot of players go through. Most people don't come into the league where they're just bang, hit the ground running and just start dominating."
Up next is a back-to-back at Atlanta and Orlando, followed by three home games in five days against the hungry 76ers, Bulls and Knicks. The injuries of his teammates, his pursuit of experience and his desire to become one of the best -- all of this made for a complex dynamic for a young player who knows where he wants to go, but has yet to find the way.