Brandon Jennings, Biding his Time in Rome

Brandon Jennings, Biding his Time in Rome
May 13, 2009, 11:59 pm
Attractive young mothers in their early 30’s push babies in designer strollers in the perfect 85 degree weather of early May. They leisurely walk past a group of students sitting atop ridiculously high pink stools outside a Sushi bar wearing cutoff t-shirts with catchy slogans like ‘go vegetarian!’ Welcome to Flamini, the Park Slope of Rome, a trendy neighborhood just north of the bustling city center. “Ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao” they chirp at each other seemingly all day long.

A few blocks away, at the Palazzetto dello Sport, amongst the ruins of the 1960 Summer Olympic site, a 19-year old American by the name of Brandon Jennings is absolutely dominating an inter-squad scrimmage consisting of multiple members of the Italian national team and some of the most coveted import players in the Italian league.

Pitted against one of the best defenders in Europe in American guard Ibi Jaaber, Jennings gets to wherever he wants on the court, showing blazing speed, outstanding ball-handling skills, incredible creativity and a real flair for making flashy plays. He makes spot-up and pull-up jumpers from inside and outside the arc, runs the pick and roll to perfection while flicking gorgeous underhanded bounce-passes right on the money to a flashing Andre Hutson, and even tries to go up and challenge former NBA center Primoz Brezec in transition with an emphatic dunk.

Even though their regular season ended on Sunday, no one on the team knows when they will be playing their first game in the quarterfinals of the Italian playoffs. The league is evaluating a spiteful appeal made by legendary Italian team Fortitudo Bologna (formerly home to NBA players such as Dominique Wilkins, Marko Jaric, Carlos Delfino, and Marco Belinelli amongst others) against a narrow loss they suffered to Teramo this past weekend, which shockingly relegated them to the second division. The frivolous protest will surely be denied, but in the meantime, the entire league sits and waits for a new playoff schedule to come out. Just another day in the wacky world of Italian basketball.

Jennings’ situation isn’t much clearer. With the team having signed journeyman Slovenian power forward Jurica Golemac to add depth to their extremely banged up frontcourt, the future lottery pick may now be the odd man out when the team submits their 12-man roster on game-day, as Lottomatica Roma is now over the quota for foreigners. Welcome to the world of an American teenager in European basketball.

Despite the fact that his playing time has largely evaporated over the past six weeks, Jennings is taking everything in stride, handling himself with maturity not found amongst players 10 years his senior here in Europe. “That’s just the hand I’ve been dealt” Jennings says with a smile and shrug. “If I could do it all over again, I probably would have signed with a smaller team, but things haven’t worked out that bad.”

When given the opportunity, Jennings has shown he can be productive at this level. We had the chance to sit alongside two NBA head coaches and one Director of Player Personnel as Jennings played the second most minutes he’s seen all season long this past Sunday, as Rome knocked a bad Cantu team out of the playoffs in a game that was meaningless for his squad since they had already locked up the second seed in the playoffs in the previous round. 8 points, 7 assists, 3 turnovers, 3 rebounds and 2 steals was his final line. Having made a long trip out to Rome, we were all just happy to see him step on the court after notching a DNP-CD the previous week. Little did we know, Jennings would end up having one of his best games of the season.

One year ago we got the chance to see Jennings practice, scrimmage and play in the week leading up to the Jordan Brand Classic in New York. A few months prior to that, we saw him lead his Oak Hill squad to victory in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield. Comparing the Brandon Jennings we saw then with what we’re seeing now might make you rub your eyes in disbelief.

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 high-light 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 afterwards. “My job is to be a pass-first point guard.”

A similar theme ensues for the rest of the night, as Jennings refuses to force the issue time after time, not hunting shots in the least bit, looking extremely focused on facilitating the offense, making the extra pass to the point that you may have wondered if he’s being a bit too passive even. Another transition opportunity occurs after yet another steal, and Jennings connects with Ibrahim Jaaber on a perfect give and go pass for an easy layup, as the ball doesn’t even touch the ground once.

As the game deteriorates into garbage time in the fourth quarter, we finally get to see some of that old flash come out—with a perfectly timed behind the back bounce pass to Andre Hutson, a beautiful alley-oop lob to Angelo Gigli, and then—gasp—a Rucker Park style behind the back pass-fake followed by a sneaky lay-in, plus the foul. “I needed to get a little something in there” Jennings chuckled afterwards, “although I don’t want to go too far.”

That’s not to say that everything is all rosy at this point with Jennings’ game—he still has a significant amount of work to do on his decision making skills and shot-selection before he can be considered an efficient point guard. While it’s obviously not fair to compare his stats as a rookie in the Euroleague and Italian league with that of his NCAA counterparts, the fact that he’s shooting just 38% from the field on the season can’t be viewed as a positive.

Perimeter shooting is the area that Jennings needs to work the most on if he’s to come anywhere close to reaching his full potential as a scorer—he’s made just 22 of 99 attempts from beyond the arc in 43 games in both the Euroleague and Italian league this season, or 22%.

Jennings has a tendency to contort his body and fade away excessively on many of his attempts—something he’s been working on extensively with Bosnian assistant Nenad Trajkovic, who was hired after Nando Gentile replaced former head coach Jasmin Repesa in December. Trajkovic worked for many years as an assistant and head coach with Serbian powerhouse Partizan Belgrade, widely considered the best team in European basketball in everything revolving around developing young players.

After every practice, Jennings works with Trajkovic on his shooting, getting up as many as 500 jumpers. He credits Trajkovic with helping him improve his mechanics significantly (“going straight up and straight down, extending my arm, not fading away too much anymore, keeping on balance, not turning my hips a lot” Jennings explains), and indeed his shot looked much better than advertised in the three practices we observed, although he still has plenty of room to continue to improve, particularly with his pull-up jumper.

The best things that Jennings brings to the table, though, definitely can’t be taught. He’s incredibly fast in the open floor, highly fluid getting up and down the floor, and extremely natural changing directions sharply and attacking the rim. In today’s NBA, where speed is absolutely at a premium like at no other point in time, Jennings has game changing potential as a shot-creator. Look no further than the way a relatively unheralded player like Aaron Brooks has been able to put his stamp on this year’s NBA playoffs for evidence of how valuable a speed demon like Jennings can be in the right offense.

All the bumping and hand-checking he’s been learning to deal with all season long from European defenders might make life a lot easier for him once he reaches the NBA, where everything is much more open thanks to the defensive 3-second rules and much tighter officiating on the perimeter.

What separates him from the Aaron Brooks’ and Monta Ellis’ of the world, though are his playmaking instincts. His talent and creativity with the ball were always evident in the games, scrimmages and practices we saw, as he sees the floor and is capable of making incredibly difficult passes look easy, in a way that no point guard in this draft not named Ricky Rubio can. Over the course of our three days in Rome, we saw Jennings make a handful of mind-blowing plays that hint of an incredible future that is in store, particularly in transition or running the pick and roll.

Harnessing that talent will be an ongoing process for Jennings, as he is not what you would call a polished player at this point. Turnovers remain a major issue for him--he commits one on 23% of his possessions in the Italian league according to our advanced stats, as he still lacks a great deal of experience operating in the half-court and is prone to making questionable decisions at times. He clearly lacks the strength to finish many of the plays around the rim he’s able to create for himself at this level, so continuing to add strength to his lanky frame will also be a priority moving forward.

Something that must be pointed out is the fact that Jennings doesn’t even really run the point for Rome that much, as he’s often slated next to either of Rome’s dominant ball-handling guards Ibrahim Jaaber or Sani Becirovic. Clearly there wasn’t a great deal of thought put into how these players complement each other on the part of the club or Jennings' camp when the roster was assembled last summer. There is no doubt that in another situation, Jennings may have been able to better put his playmaking talent on display, as he was obviously on a very short leash here in Rome.

Defensively, Jennings has made great strides since he first got to Rome—it’s not rare to see him come up with some excellent possessions on this end of the floor each and every game—but he still has a ways to go here as well. His long arms, excellent quickness and outstanding hands make him a terror in the passing lanes for example—he ranks second in the Italian league in steals per-40 pace adjusted, but he also has a tendency to reach excessively and try to pick players’ pockets from behind.

He’s learning how to use his body and speed better to stop the ball, but older, more experienced point guards are able to take advantage of his over-exuberance and lack of strength at times, lulling him to sleep and then blowing right by him. Off the ball, he has a tendency to lose his focus on occasion, and he’s still a major target for the bruising, moving screens European big men are known to set, which he has a difficult time fighting through. In the game we saw he picked up three cheap fouls in less than 90 seconds—two of them clearly being rookie calls—which forced him to play very cautiously from that point on.

There is one clear-cut benefit from playing in Europe, though: “I’ve got the flopping down pat!” Jennings jokes.

We had a chance to sit down with Jennings and talk about his experience here in Rome so far. Because of the length of the interview we had to cut it into two parts, which you’ll see here:

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