In his first career NBA game, Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks scored 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out nine assists. He was within a couple plays of joining Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only players to ever record a triple-double in their NBA debut.
The next night, in leading the Bucks to victory, Jennings led the team in scoring with 24 points. On Tuesday, he delivered 25 more as the Bucks' leading scorer in an 83-81 loss to Chicago.
Prior to last weekend, Jennings had been known as the trailblazing young player who boldly decided to skip college to spend a year in an Italian pro league developing for the NBA.
Now he owns one of the best starts to an NBA career … ever.
The two facts are related, the Compton, Calif., native assures.
“I think the whole year in Europe helped me out,” Jennings said. “I was playing against older guys, 30-year-olds, guys with lots of talent who were stronger than me, smarter.”
Jennings, 20, is aware of his place in hoops history and how his rookie season will impact the game’s immediate future. He knows all eyes are on him and his stat line. He knows plenty of people want him to fail.
He isn’t backing down from any of it.
The NBA instituted an age minimum for American-born players in 2005 that essentially mandated they attend at least one year of college. Players previously could jump to the NBA right out of high school.
It was self-serving and un-American and had no basis in historical fact. Great players – Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard – had proven college wasn’t necessary. Players who do go to college – even for four years – are no less likely to flame out in the league.
And despite the “education” college players are supposed to receive, there are just as many horror stories about them blowing their money or getting into legal trouble as there are about the preps-to-pro guys.
No matter how the traditionalists spin it, college just isn’t for everyone. Particularly when it comes to a gifted basketball player seeking a well-rounded development of his game. Why pretend to be a student for a few months? Why go play for a glorified recruiter?
“Not every kid needs to go to college,” said Duke and U.S. Olympic team coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Not just sports, in life. I think it’s a very arrogant thing to think that.”
People, however, do think that, and Jennings heard it and heard it and heard it.
He heard it when he first decided to bail on a commitment to Arizona (or a junior college if he didn’t qualify academically). He heard it when he predicted he would benefit from international coaching.
He heard it when reports came back that he wasn’t getting much playing time in Italy.
He heard it when he mentioned to reporters he was understandably homesick.
Now he’s dying to hear it some more.
“Everyone said, ‘Don’t go to Europe, go to college, be a top-five pick, do the one-and-done thing,’ ” Jennings said. “They didn’t see the whole picture, though. I didn’t play a great number of minutes but people didn’t see the practices, the two-a-days, the hard work. Most days I was the first one there and the last one to leave.
“I got to work on stuff other rookies didn’t get to. I got to do things that prepared me for the NBA.”
For Jennings to grow as a player and a person, he was best served not staying in a controlled college environment with an enabling head coach. It didn’t come from being part of the unpaid labor force that enriches all the adults around him.
It was done in a cold and, at times, cruel professional environment in Rome.
There were no playing time guarantees. No apologies for demanding more. No excuses for being late or unprepared. No cheerleaders waiting for him.
“I had to grow up real fast,” he said. “I had to take care of myself, show up to work every day and have a positive attitude. There was the traveling, the mental part of it.”
It wasn’t always easy, but Jennings said that was the point. He had his mother along with him to help with the transition. He took some academic classes. He made a reported $1 million in salary and endorsements, which was also part of the motivation.
By not going to campus, he got his mom out of Compton.
Mostly though, Jennings was able to work on his game. At 6-foot-1 and fast with the ball, he’d dominated his peers in America with an up-tempo style. That’s great for AAU ball and even college, but not in the NBA where everyone has speed.
In Rome he worked individually with an assistant coach from Croatia who showed him how to think on the court. In practice, where grown men, including former NBA players, could physically dominate him, he learned that thinking was his best weapon. After practice he got up hundreds of extra jump shots.
Unable to rely on his strength he improved on his weaknesses.
“Europe slowed my game down,” he said. “I’m still a point guard who likes the open floor and likes to go fast. I used to just want to play. Europe made my game well-rounded. I understand situations better, although I’m still learning.”
Two games do not a career – or even a season – make. Jennings is sure to struggle at times. He’s still a rookie point guard on an average team. But he may turn out to be the steal of the draft for Bucks general manager John Hammond, who took him 10th.
Jennings doubts this would’ve happened in college basketball, where the NCAA limits practice times, his Arizona program was under turmoil and so many games are mismatches that pure physical ability is rewarded.
“I think guys [that want to try Europe] need to have in their minds that it’s going to be tough,” Jennings said. “You have to ride it out. But it was the right move for me.”
So far, only a couple of Americans have followed Jennings’ lead to Europe – although other younger players are said to be considering it. Just like college ball, the Euro game isn’t for everyone.
The debate over the NBA’s age minimum is sure to heat up as the league negotiates its next collective bargaining agreement. Commissioner David Stern has pushed for a two-year limit. Players have said they want it abolished.
And college icons such as Krzyzewski say kids should be able to go to the NBA out of high school, although if they choose college they need to stay for two years.
The fairest rule is the old one. When a player believes he is ready to try the NBA, he should have in inalienable right to give it a shot. After high school, freshman year, whenever.
In the meantime, the kid who decided to fight a system that would curb his development, who refused to be part of the annual unpaid labor force of college hoops, who turned his back on an easy road as a campus star, is looking genius for choosing the path untaken.
That trail Brandon Jennings blazed gets a bit wider with each performance.
- Brandon Jennings