The great unknown

Ryan Blake, assistant director of scouting for the NBA, provides teams with a report on every player in the draft. The dossier for Brandon Jennings includes an asterisk.

Jennings, the first player to skip college and play professionally in Europe, was used sparingly by Pallacanestro Virtus Roma of the Italian League. That left talent evaluators little information on his progress. Thus, the asterisk, and Blake’s unwillingness to predict where Jennings will be picked Thursday in the NBA draft.

“I’m absolutely clueless on this,” Blake said.

Jennings’ fate on draft night will provide one of the most intriguing storylines and perhaps a landscape-altering moment for basketball.

If he’s picked among the top five players, Jennings said he envisions others in his situation – those capable of earning six-figure salaries overseas straight out of high school – grabbing passports and the cash. That means eschewing the standard path of playing for room, board and tuition in college for one season before meeting the NBA’s age requirement and entering the draft.

But Blake conjured up doomsday scenarios that might keep potential college freshmen from even looking at pictures of the Louvre, Eiffel Tower or Leaning Tower of Pisa. No matter how remote, Blake said, he envisions two nightmarish possibilities:

• Jennings freefalls straight out of the draft because teams decide there’s not enough information to assess his pro prospects.

• The team that drafts Jennings later decides he’s unprepared to fill its needs and refuses to pay the approximately $200,000 buyout in his three-year contract with his pro team, forcing Jennings to return to Rome.

“When all the concerns match up against the strengths, you have to throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘I can’t make a good gauge on a guy that has not played enough minutes … to prove where he is at.”
 
– Ryan Blake, NBA assistant director of scouting on Brandon Jennings

“I’ve got scouts over there that have seen him and give me their opinions,” Blake said. “They weren’t comfortable with him on the floor. He didn’t shoot the ball well. He’s got great speed and then he can really handle the ball, and he’s got mid-range [shooting ability] and he can get in there and finish. He does have court awareness and vision. But you don’t know how that translates at the next level.

“When all the concerns match up against the strengths, you have to throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘I can’t make a good gauge on a guy that has not played enough minutes … to prove where he is at.’ ”

Jennings already survived what some would consider a nightmare. In Rome, his team’s coach resigned in midseason, his paychecks sometimes arrived late and he averaged just 17 minutes per game.

“I could have easily quit, and I could’ve gone home,” Jennings said. “But I think I showed everybody how strong of a person I was.”

Most mock drafts project Jennings as a lottery pick (first 14 selections). When asked about the possibility of slipping into the second round or going undrafted, he said, “It still won’t change my mind about the decision I made.”

Limited options helped turned Jennings from college freshman into trailblazer.

He initially planned to play for the University of Arizona. But after he failed to qualify academically, he drew on the counsel of Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker executive who remains a basketball power broker.

Vaccaro has decried the NBA’s age-limit rule, which keeps players out of the league until one year after their high school classes graduate, as an unfair restriction on the right of players to earn a living. There’s no such rule in Europe, and Vaccaro searched for an American player willing to follow an unprecedented path.

Enter Jennings, who soon was off to Italy.

Photo
Vaccaro

Jennings earned about $1.2 million – a combination of salary and endorsement money from his deal with Under Armour, the sneaker and apparel company that will pay Jennings $2 million over three years. Vaccaro predicts the experience overseas will pay off again on draft night because he said playing against stronger, older players made Jennings better.

“There’s no question it helped him,” Vaccaro said. “He didn’t play that much, but he’s still being thought of very, very highly. … The practice sessions in Europe are more important than the game situations in American college ball.”

Playing overseas certainly didn’t hurt Jennings’ confidence. He recently proclaimed himself better than Ricky Rubio, widely regarded as the top point guard in the draft. Problem is, Jennings still is waiting for a chance to back up his words.

Rated as one of the country’s top high school point guards, Jennings would have figured to showcase his skills at Arizona. But when he arrived in Europe, he encountered a problem: The team already had a seasoned point guard, forcing Jennings to spend most of his time at shooting guard. He averaged 5.5 points and 2.3 assists over sparse minutes.

Jennings’ limited playing time compounded the difficulty NBA executives faced trying to evaluate him, said Neil Olshey, assistant general manager for the Los Angeles Clippers.

“The decision makers, they don’t have the luxury of going to seven or eight games [in Europe] every year,” he said. “The question is how much stock teams will put into workouts instead of a player’s body of work.”

Photo Brandon Jennings slam dunks during the McDonald’s All-American High School Slam Dunk Competition in 2008.
(Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jennings said he’s encouraged because four teams drafting between picks No. 4 and No. 8 need point guards. But Olshey indicated that’s cause for concern.

“If you know Brandon Jennings from high school, you know he’s a pure point guard that can run a team,” he said. “But if you waited to scout him until after high school, you don’t have the same foundation to make that decision.”

Indeed, another NBA executive whose team needs a point guard said Jennings is unsuited for that position.

“He’s not really looking to make other players better right away,” said the executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That’s not in his DNA.

“But I think he’s such an explosive athlete that there’s a place for him in the league. I think as you get down to the second half of the lottery, it’s going to be hard for teams to pass him up because he could be a 20-point scorer in the next two or three years.”

That’s good news for Jennings but no evidence that playing overseas improved his stock. Billy Packer, the longtime college basketball analyst, said it’s absurd to think Jennings or any other player would be better off in Europe rather than playing for a top-flight college coach.

“The guy didn’t go over there to become a better basketball player, I wouldn’t think,” Packer said. “If you have an opportunity to go and play for Roy Williams at the University of North Carolina, or Tom Izzo [at Michigan State], you mean to tell me that going over to some European team is going to make you a better basketball player when you have an opportunity to be taught by guys that have coached multiple NBA players?”

Vaccaro is ready with a rebuttal.

The bedrock of the North Carolina team that won the 2009 national title was a trio of pro prospects – junior point guard Ty Lawson, junior shooting guard Wayne Ellington and senior forward Tyler Hansbrough. Vaccaro pointed out that none of those three players are considered a sure-fire lottery pick and several mock drafts project that Jennings will be picked before any of the Tar Heels, though they played for Williams and won a national championship.

Players are better prepared for the draft under the tutelage of Williams rather than playing overseas?

“There’s no logic to that,” Vaccaro said.

The case of UCLA freshman Jrue Holiday also bears watching. Holiday, forced to give up his natural position of point guard because three-year starter Darren Collison locked down the job, had a disappointing season as UCLA’s shooting guard. He was the team’s fifth-leading scorer with 8.5 points per game.

Nonetheless, Holiday is projected as a lottery pick while Collison is expected to be taken in the second round.

Comparing Jennings and Holiday, college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said, “Neither one of them did anything in their first year out of high school. Nothing. But that’s the way the draft is now. They’re both being drafted on their potential.

“But with Holiday, you can make the argument that because he played in full view of NBA decision makers, that there’s some value to that. That he’s more of a known commodity to the NBA than Jennings is. And while they may have questions about both prospects, they’ve seen him. Holiday was playing in full view, and Brandon Jennings was basically playing in blackout conditions.”

Thus, the asterisk and the questions hovering over Jennings as the draft approaches. Olshey might as well have been talking about the value of playing overseas rather than college when he said of Jennings and the NBA executives trying to evaluate him: “There’s going to be some guesswork involved.”

And, perhaps, a precedent set.

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