On draft night Brandon Jennings waited and wondered. Now he's zooming to the top of the rookie class
This is an article from the Nov. 30, 2009 issue
Brandon Jennings has a way of entering the lane as if he were driving a sports car, turning the ball with either hand as if it were a steering wheel. The Bucks' rookie point guard is typically the shortest (6'1"), slightest (169 pounds) and youngest (20) player on the court, yet he glides where he pleases, fearlessly zipping in and out of sneaker-squeaking traffic.
"When I'm out there, everything just comes so easy for me," he acknowledged last Thursday while driving his actual car to Milwaukee's Calderone Club for an authentic Italiano lunch of four-cheese tortellini, a nod to his recent 10-month stay in Rome. "I'm playing on a team that has a chance to make the playoffs."
But nobody thought the Bucks could make the playoffs, his passenger reminded him.
And nobody thought you'd be this good.
"True that too," said Jennings with a smile. "But I didn't think I'd be this good either."
How does a career go from zero to 55 so quickly? That's how many points Jennings scored in his seventh NBA game, a 129--125 win over the visiting Warriors. That was the highest output by a rookie since Feb. 13, 1968, when Earl Monroe went for 56—this despite Jennings's scoreless opening quarter (offset by a 29-point third in which he hit 12 of 13 shots). But then that's how Jennings rolls. "In the beginning you want to get the teammates involved so they have the confidence that they need," he says. "We were down [after] the first half, so I was trying to spark it up a little bit. Three shots went in, then three went to five, five went to nine...."
After the game he received congratulatory texts from Steve Nash, Baron Davis and Kevin Durant, none of whom have come close to scoring 55. "I never would have thought I would score that many points," he says. "You watch guys like Kobe Bryant do it and you're like, That's crazy! And then when you do it.... I was in shock. I just couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe it."
Jennings has the makings of another lefty point guard, Nate Archibald, with the vision and skills to make plays for others or himself while going at full speed. Although he isn't quite as fast as his childhood hero Allen Iverson, whose number he wears in tribute, Jennings is far more skilled as a distributor and accelerates to either hand without sacrificing balance or control. One of his more flattering compliments was delivered by Mavericks big man Drew Gooden as Jennings brought the ball up during a recent game. "I heard him say, 'This dude's fast, you got to come and help me,'" says Jennings. "When they say that, I just try to keep going at them."
Not only was Jennings leading all rookies with 25.3 points and 5.5 assists per game at week's end, but—this is the real trick—he was also scoring constructively. Picked by many to finish last in the East, Milwaukee has had its lone All-Star, shooting guard Michael Redd, sidelined for all but two games by a strained left patella tendon. But through Sunday the 8--3 Bucks were off to their best start in nine years, and Jennings's teammates are loving him for the open shots he creates. "His game is not pass-first and it's not score-first—he's taking what the game gives him," says Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles. "But nobody could have predicted this."
Perhaps that last sentiment is of some consolation to the franchises that passed on Jennings. So bleak were his prospects on the morning of the draft in June that agent Bill Duffy pulled him out of the green room to spare Jennings and his family from the scrutiny of the cameras if he slipped out of the lottery. Not even Milwaukee, picking 10th, was willing to commit to taking him. "I had no landing spot that I could gather from talking to every team," says Duffy. "How could they not understand the depth of what he was made of?"
Many prospective NBA employers dismissed Jennings as a poor shooter who lacked discipline and was turnover-prone. Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson, the former Oklahoma and Indiana coach, had heard the word punk thrown around. Sampson believes the misperceptions about Jennings's attitude had a lot to do with his unprecedented decision to forgo college and play in Europe last season. "Brandon is uniquely independent," Sampson says. "He's been a little bit of a lone wolf in his path."
His outgoing personality masks a serious and disciplined approach to his career. Since the suicide of his father while he was in grade school, Jennings had come to view his prodigious talent as a means to support his half-brother, Terrence Phillips, now 13, and their mother, Alice Knox. To improve his NBA stock he transferred as a junior from Dominguez High in Compton, Calif., to Oak Hill Academy in Mount of Wilson, Va., where he averaged 35.5 points to become the consensus high school player of the year as a senior. Jennings committed to Arizona but twice failed to pass the qualifying exams. So he connected with Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker executive who had been touting Europe as an alternative for high school graduates who didn't want to postpone their pro careers for a year while waiting to become draft-eligible.
In July 2008, Vaccaro arranged a tryout in Las Vegas that was attended by Dejan Bodiroga, the Euroleague legend who had retired to become general manager of the Italian club Lottomatica. One week later Jennings was holding a press conference in Rome after signing a contract that would liberate him to earn $1.2 million in salary and endorsements last season.
Jennings found his year abroad unsettling. He was playing with and against grown men who were sometimes twice his age. The refereeing was at times unfathomable, the coaches were forbidding, and the games were played at a slower, more regimented rhythm that he was never able to grasp. "I wasn't myself, I played too tense," he says. "If I turned over the ball or if a guy scored on me, then I was coming out of the game for sure."
Had the Bucks focused merely on Jennings's disappointing numbers—6.3 points in 17.8 minutes over 43 games in the Euroleague and Italian league—they never would have taken him. But assistant general manager Jeff Weltman, one of three Bucks executives to scout Jennings last season, was struck by Knox's attending all of the team's twice-daily practices. Because Jennings wasn't licensed to drive she ferried him back and forth to the gym twice a day in their Volvo station wagon. She would sit in the stands quietly watching movies on her laptop or instant messaging with friends, depending on the time of day back home in California. "Jeff came back talking as much about his mom as he was about Brandon," says Bucks G.M. John Hammond. "Jeff's point was that she never came near the floor, how professional and respectful she was and the commitment she and his brother made to support him over there."
Adding to that commitment were the daily two-hour individual workouts Jennings underwent over the second half of the season with Lottomatica assistant Nenad Trajkovic, who trained him exhaustively in the pick-and-roll and other NBA skills. Many scouts had no faith in Jennings's jumper—he shot a measly 38.1% in Europe—but he was determined to answer their doubts. "One day the trainer did some exercises with Brandon that just about killed him," says Knox. "If he missed one shot, he had to start all over again, and it got so bad I had to go outside and do a prayer for him, I was so frustrated for him. But now I think about Brandon scoring those 55 points and coming down the lane and pulling up for those shots, and they were the same shots that trainer was making him do over and over. That work really paid off for him."
After Duffy pulled Jennings out of the green room on draft day, he rented a ballroom at the Westin Times Square where the family and 30 friends could watch his selection on TV, no matter how long they might have to wait. "It was a devastating day," says Knox. "All day ESPN was whaling on him so bad that his stock was dropping."
From age 16 Jennings had submitted himself to three hard years away from home with the singular goal of improving himself for the NBA. He was convinced the investment had paid off, but now he worried that he was the only one who believed. His heart sank when the Warriors and the Knicks passed him by at Nos. 7 and 8 (to take Davidson guard Stephen Curry and Arizona forward Jordan Hill, respectively), even though he'd had his best predraft workouts with those teams. After USC guard DeMar DeRozan went to the Raptors at No. 9, Jennings had no idea that he stood alone at the top of the Bucks' board after their other option, Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn, had been taken sixth by the Timberwolves.
Jennings couldn't hear Stern announce his last name above the screaming. His mother was hugging him. "Everybody was crying," says Duffy. "I'm someone who doesn't cry, I just don't, but when his name was called, I was crying."
I never saw this coming," says an Eastern Conference scout, a phrase that is echoing throughout the league. "He wasn't playing over there, he was having trouble with his coaches, and he couldn't shoot. That was the big issue—his shooting—but it sure isn't now."
At week's end Jennings was making an astonishing 49.1% of his threes—better than all but seven players in the NBA—launching confidently into his shot and finishing with an exquisitely supple follow-through. Despite the absences of Redd and center Andrew Bogut in a game at Memphis last Saturday, Jennings drove Milwaukee to sweep a back-to-back by scoring all but two of his game-high 26 points in the second half of a 103--98 win.
Hard times surely lie ahead. "Teams are screening him all the time," says Skiles. "They're banging him with their big guys, looking to take some juice out of him—and it's wise, it's what they should be doing." The game-planning against Jennings will escalate, his body will wear down, his percentages will ebb.
But he won't flame out. Jennings doesn't act as if he has the NBA all figured out. His first car was neither a Mercedes nor a BMW but rather a frugal $26,000 Ford Edge. "I asked him why he bought it, and he said, 'There might be a lockout in two years,'" says Sampson.
He remains as focused as he was three years ago when he departed Compton. Instead of living in downtown Milwaukee, Jennings moved into a suburban lakeside condo less than a mile from the Bucks' practice facility. "In September he started texting me, 'Coach, you want to go up to the gym and shoot?'" says Sampson. "His cousin would come with him and rebound, and Brandon would take his shirt off, and there were some nights where we'd shoot for two and a half hours nonstop. We'd look up there at the clock and it's after 11, and we've gone from drill to drill, one side of the floor to the other, and every time he'd get fatigued we'd recover at the free throw line. We were working on everything from runners to jump shots."
The overnight sensation understands better than anyone that success never comes overnight.
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