Last spring, the New York Knicks were intrigued enough about Brandon Jennings(notes) that they brought the point guard in for not one, but two, private predraft workouts. Jennings was the trailblazing high school star who took his game from Compton, Calif., to Rome, bypassing the standard year of NBA-mandated, NCAA purgatory.
Jennings had his backers inside the Knicks organization. No, he hadn’t played much as a professional in Italy, but his development and demeanor in practice were there for anyone willing to look.
Considering New York’s bottomless scouting budget, the fact it was desperate for a point guard and had already mortgaged multiple seasons in pursuit of LeBron James(notes) next summer, you’d have thought getting a read on Jennings would’ve been a priority for Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh.
Apparently, it wasn’t. Not even repeated workouts were enough. That included a head-to-head with Tyreke Evans(notes) (who would be taken fourth by the Sacramento Kings) where observers say Jennings more than held his own.
New York, sitting at No. 8 in last June’s draft, desperate for just the franchise-changing talent that Jennings offered, passed anyway. They went with big man Jordan Hill(notes) from the University of Arizona.
Jennings slid to Milwaukee, where the 20-year-old has electrified the league. He’s flirting with triple-doubles one night, dropping 55 points the next. There haven’t been many debuts like this. The 6-3 Bucks are even winning.
Hill, meanwhile, is averaging 4.2 points a game in reserve duty. New York is a pathetic 2-9.
This is more than a classic case of a blown draft pick, though. New York isn’t alone in missing on Jennings. The implications for the Knicks, however, could be far more wide-ranging and long-lasting than other teams.
The Knicks could’ve entered the Summer of LeBron ready to court the King with the lure of playing along a franchise point guard and tremendous outside shooter – two things he’s mostly lacked during his time in Cleveland. Instead, the Knicks look like their typical circus self.
The Knicks even seriously considered signing Allen Iverson(notes) after he cleared waivers on Thursday. It was the surest sign of desperation in the NBA. There’s nothing left with Iverson, just fading hype and a sure-bet soap opera to come.
The Knicks eventually wised up and passed on Iverson – for now. But Donnie Walsh’s front office wouldn't have needed to consider picking through the Memphis Grizzlies’ scrap heap had they drafted Jennings.
So this is how you show LeBron you’re a viable destination? This is how you demonstrate you have the shrewd basketball minds capable of building a winner around him?
By even contemplating Iverson?
It was always going to take a leap of faith for James to choose New York. Yes, the Knicks have salary cap space. Yes, they have Broadway. Yes, they have Madison Square Garden, which still turns LeBron into a wide-eyed kid.
They also have one of the worst rosters in the NBA, and there’s little sign that the guys in charge are capable of changing it.
James has put a moratorium on speaking publicly about his decision, which doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention. He is a student of the game, keenly aware of how the NBA works.
If he leaves Cleveland, then it’s not solely because of money. Under NBA rules the Cavs can pay him more. The way he’s become a global endorser from Northeast Ohio, it’s not certain the bright lights of Manhattan can make that much of a difference to his already outrageous bank account.
If LeBron leaves Cleveland, it’s in pursuit of a championship. It’s about no longer trusting the Cavs to put pieces in place to get a championship ring. Presuming they don’t win it this season, James would’ve given them seven seasons to make it happen.
Next summer will be a choice of competence as much as compensation.
In James’ only New York appearance earlier this month, he was wooed by rappers and actors and Yankees sitting courtside.
Brandon Jennings darting through the key would’ve made a far bigger impact.
A Jennings-James combo is one to dream about. Imagine the lightning quick, pure point guard LeBron has always needed. Imagine the same player having such a deft shooting stroke – honed during 1,000-shot-per-day sessions before and after practice in Europe – that he can then wait for kick-out passes when James barrels down the lane.
Most of all, imagine the dose of credibility the pick would’ve given the Knicks’ new regime. Yes, we inherited a mess, they could argue. Yes, we still have ways to go, but look at our talent evaluation. We just plucked the Rookie of the Year off an Italian practice squad.
Knicks fans would be beside themselves with the Jennings show, MSG rocking nightly. Nothing charges that city up like a young, breathless talent.
“I didn't have a good feel for his game,” Walsh told the New York Post. “I went to Europe to see him at a draft camp and he didn't show. We brought him in here and the situation is not running up and down, five-on-five. So going into the draft, I didn't get a good feeling.”
At least Donnie Walsh is honest. It’s still his fault.
He had scouts in Europe and some of them, sources say, lobbied hard for Jennings. He could’ve made repeated trips. They brought the kid in twice for workouts.
In a draft as weak as last season’s, with the Knicks in such a critical need of talent and so much riding on the choice, there isn’t an excuse for not seeing what Milwaukee and its fraction of a scouting budget saw.
New York didn’t just blow its shot at the NBA’s next great point guard last June. They may have blown their shot at LeBron James.