Will Brandon Jennings Laugh Last?
I have watched Brandon Jennings play about four times this season for Lottomatica Roma, via the Euroleague Game of the Week on NBA TV.
Considering that statistics and reports out of Rome have indicated that Jennings has had an erratic year as a rookie 19-year-old, I've been surprised at how impressed I've been by his play.
Given the way that NBA rules are currently structured to give an advantage to speed on the perimeter, I consider Brandon Jennings to be the no. 3 prospect in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Jennings is extremely quick with the ball, he can finish at the basket in traffic at 6-2, and also has excellent court vision. He is reminiscent of a Tony Parker- or Aaron Brooks-type player in terms of speed with the ball, though I would say Jennings is a better passer than those players, but not as good of a shooter. Outside shooting is a big weakness for Jennings right now (he made just 23% of his three-pointers on the season), but I do think he has a pretty good stroke to work with.
He also doesn't yet have an effective floater or general craftiness inside like Parker or Brooks, though he does have a sheer explosion at the rim, even with a slight build (approx. 170 lbs.), that neither of those players have. I saw him score over 7-0 Tiago Splitter, one of the best defensive centers in the world, by impressively elevating and taking a drive right into Splitter's chest and scoring.
Another "con" point, per se, that I'd note is that Jennings hasn't played a pure point guard in the games I watched from Italy, it was more of a motion offense/point-guard-by-committee deal. But again, I see Jennings as more of a Parker/Brooks-style guy than a classic point man, and geez, he certainly played at least as much PG as Jrue Holiday did at UCLA, and Holiday is moving up the charts rapidly.
Every time I saw Jennings, he really competed on the defensive end - his quickness allowed him to be a pest even if his inexperience caused him to struggle in the pick-and-roll. As much as anything, I was impressed at how professional the kid was, at how mature he looked - there was no pouting, no self-indulgent individualism on display.
What I saw through the television was consistent with what Jonathan Givony reported in his excellent story on Jennings from Rome last month:
- Gone is the brash, arrogant teenager with the Kid ’N Play style flat-top who dominated the ball in absolute fashion and looked first and foremost for his own shot, his stats and the ultimate highlight play. In his place is a much more mature, respectful young man, always cheering on his teammates, showing great body language and painstakingly trying to do what his coaches ask of him, almost to a fault at times.
In the second quarter, Jennings comes up with a steal and has a three-on-two transition opportunity. Not seeing the angle he was looking for, he pulls the ball out, waits for his teammates to run down the floor and calls a play, to the shock of everyone in attendance who had watched him play in America. "The Brandon Jennings of old would have never passed up that opportunity," the Director of Player Personnel sitting next to us points out while nodding his head. "Gotta limit those turnovers" Jennings explains to us afterward. "My job is to be a pass-first point guard."
As Jennings has tweeted:
- it has been a great experience even though i don't play a lot. I understand the pro game. I've gotten Better.... I was hooping with Grown Men Everyday, Im Mentally Strong so I can go through anything!
This is certainly a tough draft to evaluate - I consider there to be five players with the potential to be stars at the NBA level:
- Blake Griffin
Jennings was widely considered to be the best player in the high-school class of 2008 - not only have I seen nothing which would make me change that evaluation, but rather I think Jennings has developed better against the tougher professional competition of the Euroleague than his classmates did in the NCAA.
Jennings tweeted this: i think if anybody went before me in the 08 class ill be kinda mad! i would really be on Kobe stuff then. lol!!!!
I agree. He should be the top player drafted from the class of '08, and, depending upon team need, I think that only Griffin and Rubio should be taken ahead of him, period. I will take Jennings over Thabeet and Jordan Hill, whom I think are insufficiently skilled, and James Harden, whom I think is insufficiently athletic, to be stars at the next level.
Fellow Class-of-'08 Angeleno Jrue Holiday from UCLA is an interesting prospect - he has better size (6-4, 200) than Jennings and is considered to be an excellent defender with a high basketball IQ. I rate Jennings higher, however, in large part because I think Holiday has displayed a complete inability to create offense for himself. I know he was in a tough position at UCLA in sharing the backcourt with PG Darren Collison, but I just didn't see any ability to create offense from Holiday.
Statistically, Jennings certainly does not look good - John Hollinger has a formula for translating Euroleague stats to the NBA and the translated numbers for Jennings in the NBA, per-40 minutes, look like this: 11.5 pts, 3.9 reb, 4.3 ast, .341 FG%.
Pretty ugly, especially that shooting percentage, and Hollinger's formula usually works pretty well, but look back at the link above - one big miss he had was with Nicolas Batum, who was just 19 in the Euroleague, like Jennings. Hollinger projected a dismal 8.89 PER for Batum's rookie campaign in the NBA, and the young Frenchman ended up significantly better, at a 12.92 PER as a starter for a 54-win team. That leads me to believe that Hollinger's formula may underestimate the significant natural improvement that a player achieves at such a young age - from 19 to 20 - so I'm not terribly concerned about Jennings in this regard.
OK, so I've stated my opinion and tried to make a case for Jennings reasonably, but really all of this is just preamble to my real point: What on Earth is going on with the mainstream evaluation and perception of Brandon Jennings?
First, you have the college basketball apologists, who crack me up. There is Jay Bilas on the draft lottery broadcast - OK, so he has Thabeet ranked ahead of Rubio, fine, but Jennings is his no. 12 prospect?! Behind Jonny Flynn and Eric Maynor? Are you kidding me?
As Jennings tweeted: Bilas probably going off STATS! And he's a COllege guy anyways! So I knew that was coming! DUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
And then there was the unprovoked frontal assault that Len Elmore unleashed during the McDonald's All-American Game, insinuating not only that Jennings had made the wrong decision by going to Europe instead of the NCAA, but also that there were "grumblings" from Jennings that he regretted his decision. This was especially rich considering that, just two weeks prior, Jennings had very confidently stated, "This is the best decision I’ve made so far" in an interview from Rome with Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports.
OK, but those are college guys, who make their living off the college game. The NBA personnel guys can see through all the noise and evaluate Jennings rationally, right?
Well, here is a note that Givony posted on DraftExpress yesterday:
- There is a growing sense in NBA circles that Brandon Jennings may be making a mistake by passing up the Reebok Eurocamp in Treviso next week in favor of participating in private NBA workouts. Numerous teams in the lottery have pointed out to us that they do not feel comfortable with the amount of competitive five on five action they’ve seen Jennings partake in, and that they would have a difficult time selecting him based on the body of work he’s put together up until this point.
NBA teams were not allowed to scout Jennings in high school, and many saw their scouting trips to Italy this year come up empty as they only were able to see him play for a few minutes at a time, often at the shooting guard position.
To all of this, I say: are you kidding? To the suggestion that teams have apparently voiced that they haven't seen Jennings in enough "competitive five-on-five action".... Well, I'm sorry, but I have to go into John McEnroe voice and say: YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!
Honestly, it's not like the guy has been playing in the 3rd division in Estonia; he's been in the freaking Euroleague, the most competitive basketball league outside the NBA, and the Italian League, one of the world's best domestic leagues!
I've seen Jennings four times my own damn self, and just the other day I finished watching him in a game against Tau Ceramica, one of the top clubs in Europe, in a game I had saved on my DVR from January. I watched him battle against Pablo Prigioni, the starting point guard for the Argentina national team, who has one of the highest basketball IQ's in the world. He abused Jennings with his savvy on the pick-and-roll, but on the other end, he had absolutely no chance of keeping Jennings in front of him.
As mentioned above, I watched Jennings take it right to Tiago Splitter, an excellent shotblocker at 7-0, at the rim. This guy would be the starting center for the Spurs if not for his contract - San Antonio could desperately use his youth and athleticism inside, and geez, Cleveland could have used the guy last week given their feckless interior D.
Tau also has Igor Rakocevic, one of the top scoring guards in Europe, rumored to possibly be coming over to Houston for next season. You're telling me this competition is not sufficient enough to evaluate Jennings? Are you kidding?
Honestly, if NBA personnel departments can't figure out how to find meaningful five-on-five footage of Jennings, they should be fired en masse. Can you people not figure out how to program a DVR for the Euroleague Game of the Week on NBA TV? Can you not figure out how to sign up for ESPN360.com, which had even more Roma games, or the Euroleague.TV product online, which had all the games? Do you not have an account with Synergy Sports, who does European games as well?
I'm sorry that you folks didn't get to see him in person, but there is a significant amount of Jennings' body of work against top competition which is readily available.
So now, Jennings is slipping in mock drafts. Givony had Jennings at 4 after seeing him in Rome, but now he has dropped him to 7 [note: Jennings is down to 13 on DraftExpress as of 6/4], with this note:
- Should Jennings slip past Golden State at 7, he may be in for somewhat of a tumble on draft night, as players such as Jonny Flynn and Jrue Holiday appear to be the next point guards on most teams’ boards, and a franchise like Indiana could opt for a more experienced player such as Ty Lawson or Eric Maynor.
- "A number of GMs said Flynn gave the best interview of any of the prospects. His personal charisma seems to be helping him close the sale."
"I thought they'd be taking a serious look at Brandon Jennings here, and they probably will, but Flynn has the leadership and heart that the Warriors desperately need. Jennings is a project who is much farther away."
All of this is to say that I feel like Jennings is being questioned and moved down draft boards for a bunch of reasons completely unrelated to this question: Can he play?
So, now, this is the funny thing to me.... Today, it looks like Brandon Jennings made a bad decision - it looks like his European adventure has hurt his draft stock. The unprecedented, even exotic, nature of his experience seems to have left NBA personnel staff without the reference points to properly evaluate him. The implication to read from NBA GMs, as Jennings slides down the board, is that he got worse by going to Europe. The stewards of the status quo of the college game can look down upon him with condescension and paternalism for daring to develop his game elsewhere.
However, I believe that in time, whether it's next week, next year or five years, the only question that matters - Can he play? - will be answered, emphatically, "Yes".
Yo, what happen if i go #1??? hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahha college basketball is done!!! its a joke though
I believe that in time it will be shown that playing in the Euroleague developed Jennings' game better than the NCAA game would have, and that it will be yet more proof that it is not necessary to play college basketball in order to develop into an elite player.
(As if more is needed: Note that the last 3 MVPs, and 4 of the 5 members of the All-NBA First Team, and as many as 7 of the 10 players starting in the Finals, did not play a second of college basketball, while NCAA icons Redick and Morrison bide their time on the pine.)
I feel like if i go top 5 more kids will go overseas!!! Trust Me!
I'm not sure how many players going forward will be able to follow in Jennings' footsteps and handle the difficult transition to Europe, but I hope that many more do so, rather than getting caught in crossfire a la Derrick Rose while paving a college coach's step up the golden ladder.
10 years from now, Ill look back and be like Im glad I did go to ROMA, ITALY!
Will Brandon Jennings laugh last? I think he will.