Star rookie Jennings is growing up, going up
The high-top fade has been replaced by short twists. The pompous teen-ager has been replaced by a polite, humble young man. And the erratic, garbage-time point guard languishing in Europe has been replaced by the favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Brandon Jennings has endured a lot for a 19-year-old. He skipped college to play for Italy’s Lottomatica Virtus Roma and satisfy the requirement to be one year removed from high school to play in the NBA. His decision to stay in his hotel room on draft night until his name was announced drew jeers from critics.
And when it seemed that Jennings had done almost everything wrong leading up to his NBA debut, he has responded with the best stretch of basketball from a rookie since LeBron James. Jennings leads the Bucks in scoring and assists and dropped in 55 points in 41 minutes in a Nov. 14 victory over the Warriors.
The 55 points were the most for an NBA rookie since Earl “The Pearl’’ Monroe scored 56 in 1968.
Jennings, whose Bucks are in Boston Tuesday night, has scored in double figures in all but one game and he has catapulted a once-moribund franchise into playoff contention. For the first time since the days of Ray Allen, Glen Robinson, and Sam Cassell, folks are talking the Bucks.
The kid that appeared destined for stardom acknowledges that the past six weeks have been overwhelming.
“Everything’s been kind of crazy right now with all the attention I’ve been getting, and the main thing is trying to stay focused,’’ said Jennings, who leads rookies in scoring (21.2) and assists (5.9). “I don’t want to take too much away from the team or anything like that, so I still try to keep them more involved with everything.
“I wasn’t expecting to come in here and do this good this early. I guess you can say that everything I learned in Europe is helping me out so far.’’
Jennings took a back seat to more experienced players in Europe. Some observers say he wasn’t given a fair opportunity to shine because of his age and style of play. He averaged 17 minutes and 5.5 points in 27 Italian League games and 19.6 minutes and 7.6 points in 16 Euroleague games.
Those numbers didn’t portend Jennings’s stunning success in the NBA. But with NBA games less structured and more up-tempo, Jennings fits in perfectly. He is a scoring point guard who is working to improve his distribution of the ball.
“Here the talent is way better than it is in Italy,’’ he said. “I just didn’t get a chance to play overseas, but here I am able to get to where I want on the court and make things happen.’’
And his contributions have been needed. Michael Redd has been limited to five games while recovering from a torn ACL, and former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut has missed six games with injuries. Jennings has shot 42 percent from the field and a whopping 46 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
The Bucks haven’t had an impact player since the days of Allen and Robinson. Milwaukee has been an NBA afterthought for years, a franchise short on money and star power.
“I wanted to come in here and help the team win regardless of scoring, playing defense or just doing the little things,’’ he said. “So far, it’s working. The type of season I am looking forward to having is the type of season Derrick Rose had his rookie year. He didn’t lead rookies in scoring but he did what he had to do to get his team into the playoffs.’’
Jennings hasn’t been free of controversy. Several months ago, in what he thought was a private conversation but was streamed online, Jennings ripped the Knicks for passing on him in favor of Jordan Hill, insulted Ricky Rubio, and predicted he would be a star even before his first Bucks press conference.
But Jennings isn’t that egotistical kid from six months ago. He is now polite, careful with his answers, and respectful.
“I learned you just can’t trust everybody,’’ he said. “I am kind of glad it did happen to me early so I can learn from it. Now, I’ve just got to be careful whom I am talking to.
“I am playing with a chip on my shoulder every night because I feel like I have a lot to prove.’’
The Raptors are a young team and Jay Triano is an unknown commodity as a coach. Is he getting through to the younger players, and will these issues discourage Chris Bosh (above) from re-signing next summer?
“I keep up with them,’’ Triano said. “I go in at 40 minutes on the [pregame] clock and they seem to be very focused at that point. But after that, I am with my coaches, and before that, I am with my coaches.’’
Bosh was unhappy that Celtics players came off the bench to defend Paul Pierce after he taunted Bosh following a dunk, while the Raptors stayed in their chairs.
“They had guys standing up and it wasn’t even their player who got hurt,’’ Bosh said.
The Raptors were 8-13 entering last night’s game and allowed 75 points in a half against Atlanta Wednesday.
“The defensive effort hasn’t been there for a while. We didn’t magically appear last on the charts defensively,’’ Bosh said in Atlanta. “I mean, tonight was just a total embarrassment. We couldn’t stop anybody. We haven’t stopped anybody all year.’’
What is Sam Mitchell’s cell phone number again?
“The trust level is starting to get there,’’ he said. “We’re starting to trust each other on defense and on offense. The first couple of games, I didn’t understand the plays and the defensive schemes but I’m starting to catch on.’’
Many NBA observers didn’t blame Jackson for acting up in Golden State because of Don Nelson. The coach has angered many players over the years. And the Warriors were methodically dismantled following a 2006-07 season in which they advanced to the Western Conference semifinals.
Also, Charlotte coach Larry Brown has a history of dealing well with players with character issues. Rasheed Wallace and Allen Iverson clashed with Brown at times but eventually became loyal to their coach.
“He consistently coaches us about not making the game so hard,’’ Jackson said. “The game is easy, and when you make the easy plays, it’s easy to win games. We’re starting to take heed to that.’’
Jackson says his reputation in the league is not soiled, despite his part in the brawl at the Palace at Auburn Hills during the Pacers-Pistons game Nov. 19, 2004, and his antics in Golden State.
“After you’ve been in this game so long, the respect just comes naturally,’’ said Jackson, who won a title with the Spurs in 2003. “What a lot of teams and players respect about me around this league, whether I played with them or not, is the fact that I want to win.
“I am going to give my all for my teammates and I am going to have their back until the end.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.