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Bucks’ Jennings works on his game and image

By Gary Washburn
September 4, 2011

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It seems brashness is part of the Brandon Jennings package, but not merely a byproduct of his immaturity. With Andrew Bogut unable to avoid injury and Scott Skiles unable to coach the Bucks beyond the first round of the playoffs, Jennings with all of his bravado has become the face of the franchise.

He has spent the summer playing in a series of all-star games, working with Under Armour to boost his image but also working as an intern with the company’s shoe department.

Jennings, despite having shown the ability to score points in bunches with flair, has yet to prove he has the qualities of a front-line point guard. Likewise, the Bucks, once considered a team on the rise, have yet to prove they can compete favorably with the Eastern Conference elite.

The injury-riddled Bucks stumbled to a 35-47 record last season, and despite averaging 16.2 points per game, Jennings struggled in the key categories: shooting percentage (39.0) and assists per game (4.8, nearly one fewer than his rookie season).

Milwaukee general manager John Hammond decided to shake things up, shipping Corey Maggette to Charlotte and John Salmons to Sacramento for Beno Udrih and Stephen Jackson, the controversial swingman who has promised to spearhead the Milwaukee resurgence.

Jennings has to be foremost in that effort, and he realizes his importance to the team’s fortunes.

“The first day Stephen Jackson walked into the facility, I knew right then and there it was going to be a different year,’’ Jennings said. “And it’s going to be a year that I think we’re going to be successful.

“The thing about the NBA is the league gets better and better every year. It’s never going to be the same, so I think with Stephen Jackson and a healthy Andrew Bogut and Drew Gooden, I think we’ll be talented enough to play with any of the top teams in the East, hands down.’’

Jennings was limited to 63 games last season because of a broken foot, and that hindered his progress from rookie to second-year player. His speed is dazzling. He is impossible to stop off the dribble when his 3-point shot is falling, but that is far too seldom. He launched 303 3-pointers last season and converted just 32 percent.

“I thought with the success we had the first year, I thought it was going to be a little easier,’’ said Jennings, who never played college basketball. “But actually it gets harder and harder, so I think that’s why this summer I’m taking it real serious and just getting in the weight room.

“I’ve been working four months straight. I haven’t really taken any breaks. For me, it’s just work, work, work right now.’’

On draft night in 2009, Jennings had his heart set on going to the Knicks, but they opted for forward Jordan Hill. Jennings fell to the Bucks and stunned observers by averaging 15.5 points per game as a rookie, including a 55-point performance against the Warriors.

Perhaps the most rational ways for the Bucks to improve are through trades and the draft. It is unlikely that three premium free agents will collaborate to take their talents to Wisconsin, but that doesn’t discourage Jennings from hoping to turn the Bucks into a consistent winner.

“I know they always say don’t get comfortable where you’re at, but I’m kind of comfortable in Milwaukee,’’ he said. “I like it. I like the environment. That’s where I want to be.

“Hopefully things work out to where I can be there for a long time. I don’t plan on going to a big market and just leaving Milwaukee. As long as you are winning, they will come.’’

Jennings is hardly concerned about staleness during this lockout. He has dashed back and forth to both coasts playing in pickup games, including the thrilling Goodman League-Drew League matchup two weeks ago in Washington D.C. There is talk of a rematch next weekend in Los Angeles after the 135-134 Goodman victory.

Jennings already tweeted last week that Kobe Bryant shouldn’t be allowed on the Drew League team because the Lakers guard was not raised in Los Angeles. Criticize Jennings if you wish, but he has mastered the art of tuning out his critics, and he is astute enough to understand that improvements are essential.

“At the end of the day, I love the game, I’d do it for free,’’ he said. “If you are a real hooper, a real baller, working on your game every day, you have nothing to worry about.’’

Evans shows off his jumper Pickup games are not the best indicators of offseason improvement. With the lack of defense and the ragged play, any NBA player can leave the gym resembling an All-Star.

That wasn’t that case last week when Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans, donning just a plain white T-shirt, participated in scrimmages against several members of the Under Armour Elite 24 high school all-stars.

Although it was expected that Evans would dominate his teenage counterparts, what stunned onlookers was his much-improved jump shot. Evans has often been criticized for a lack of a perimeter game, but he spent that night in Harbor City, Calif., popping jumpers in the faces of overwhelmed opponents.

Evans, entering his third season, converted just 40.9 percent of his shots last season, a significant decline from his rookie year. And his on-court decisions and shot selection were also questioned, even by teammates. In one late-season game, rookie DeMarcus Cousins left the court steaming after Evans missed a long jumper that would have tied the game in the final seconds.

Evans said he realizes that if the Kings are to take the next step - and they have a wealth of young talent - he needs to become a more poised player.

“We lost most of the games, but it’s not like we got blown out every game,’’ he said of the 24-58 Kings. “We played tough games and we have to learn how to finish those games out.

“And the big part was because of me - I wasn’t a leader on the team. So this year I have to do a better job of finishing out games.’’

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson secured the opportunity to build a new arena and avoid the franchise’s relocation to Anaheim with a last-ditch proposal that impressed NBA commissioner David Stern. When it appeared the Kings were done in Sacramento during their home finale against the Lakers in April, the Power Balance Pavilion crowd cheered its downtrodden team as if it were Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals again.

The Kings lost in overtime, 116-108, but Evans walked away impressed with the commitment.

“Playing there that last game with that atmosphere showed what type of fans they are,’’ he said. “We ain’t even winning - imagine what they would be like if we started winning?’’

In an era in which younger stars are keeping their eyes on bigger markets, bigger paydays, and more exposure as they approach free agency, Evans said he is content with the Kings, and he was relieved when Sacramento received at least one more year to stabilize the franchise.

“That’s my first NBA team and I would like to stay there as long as possible,’’ he said. “The fans are great to me. All they want to do is win and they love the Sacramento Kings. I’m just there to try to put us back where we were when they had [Mike] Bibby and those guys.

“We’re young, got a good team, got a lot of talent. We are headed in the right direction. A lot of people say how young we are but I don’t think it’s time to stop. When you’ve got a chance to go for the playoffs and be a good team, you do it.’’

Perhaps to attract even more fans and attention, Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie drafted BYU super scorer Jimmer Fredette. There is some question as to how he and Evans will mesh on the court. Neither appears to be a true point guard, but both are point guard size.

“He’s definitely going to take pressure off of me,’’ said Evans. “There’s a lot of attention drawn on me, so now, with him on the floor, he can shoot from anywhere.

“I’m looking forward to playing with him, kicking it out to him, and take the pressure off of me and knock the three down. We both can play the 1 and 2. We’ve still got Marcus Thornton back there, so it’s going to be great.’’

Menino wants to host game Although Boston may be the most storied city in league history, it has not hosted an NBA All-Star Game since 1964. As soon as the lockout concludes, Houston is expected to be officially announced as the host city - for the second time in seven years - for the 2013 game.

It is believed that ownership squabbles between the Celtics and the Bruins, as well as disagreements with the mayor over the past several years, have grounded any plans for the February classic to return to Boston. But Mayor Thomas Menino said the days of infighting within Boston’s sports and political infrastructure are over.

“We haven’t had it since ’64 and I think we’re ready for it,’’ Menino said. “We have new ownership, new enthusiasm, the fan base out here for it, and I just think we have the facility and everything ready to go.

“I hope that the NBA makes the decision in the near future to bring the All-Star Game to our city.’’

There is only a tight circle of cities hosting the game because several have passed on the financial commitment in today’s economic landscape. So Los Angeles, Houston, Orlando, Dallas, and Phoenix, among others, are taking turns. The Celtics would have to file a formal proposal to host the game, and co-owner Wyc Grousbeck has said his team is interested in joining the rotation.

“The Celtics would have to be the applicant for it, and as a city, I would endorse the idea,’’ Menino said. “As a city, I would endorse the idea of bringing it here with the Convention Center folks, get all the entities in our city working together to make sure the All-Star Game is a first-class game that people participate in and neighbors could participate. I just think it’s long overdue.

“The change in ownership, the change of attitudes, the change of spirit in our city - I look forward someday to having the NBA All-Star Game here and I hope the Celtics in the very near future make the application for it.’’

Of course, everything may be pushed back a year if the lockout cancels the 2012 All-Star Game in Orlando.

In that scenario, the earliest Boston could host a game would be 2015.

Crittenton’s case shocking The arrest of former NBA guard Javaris Crittenton (left) for the murder of an Atlanta woman during a drive-by shooting has shocked those around the league who considered Crittenton perhaps immature but not violent.

Crittenton was released by the Bobcats in training camp last season after the NBA suspended him for his infamous gun incident with Gilbert Arenas while with the Wizards in December 2009. Crittenton had not played in the NBA since the end of 2008-09, feeling the brunt of that regrettable exchange with Arenas in which he drew a gun in the locker room.

It’s stunning that just four years ago Crittenton was considered a budding prospect out of Georgia Tech and a steal when drafted 19th overall by the Lakers. The reality was that Crittenton may have been physically ready for the NBA but hardly prepared mentally.

If the league continues to allow prospects barely a year removed from high school into the NBA, we can expect more cases of kids acting like kids. And in Crittenton’s case, his act of malice may cost him his freedom for the rest of his life.

Chandler deal locks him in Wilson Chandler apparently wanted none of the burden that has plagued players concerned about whether they will earn money this season. The restricted free agent agreed to a one-year contract with Zhejiang Guangsha, a Chinese Basketball Association team.

There is a major difference between this contract and those that have been signed with teams in Italy, Turkey, and other European countries.

China’s league passed a rule that mandates NBA players sign contracts for the full season, meaning Chandler will be committed to Zhejiang Guangsha regardless of when the labor impasse is settled.

It is a risky move for Chandler, because he may have received a lucrative offer from teams interested in a young, athletic, and skilled swingman.

Chandler was just beginning to develop as an impact player with the Knicks when he was shuttled to the Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony deal. The Nuggets appeared interested in bringing him back, but they will have to wait until next season.

Among the 60 players taken in the 2007 draft, Chandler is tied for second in scoring at 13.9 points per game with the Celtics’ Jeff Green. Only Kevin Durant (25.9) ranks higher.

Layups Add Jimmer Fredette to the list of NBA players organizing all-star games to keep in shape and raise money for charity. Fredette has put together games on consecutive nights in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, that will include primarily rookies, including former UConn standout Kemba Walker . . . When it became apparent that he wasn’t a finalist for the Minnesota job, Mike Woodson accepted an offer to be an assistant coach with the Knicks. Woodson, who also interviewed for the Pistons job before losing out to Lawrence Frank, will attempt to revamp the Knicks’ defense, an arduous task considering Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire have never focused on that side of the ball. Woodson will be better positioned to improve his stock as a top assistant, because he did not leave the Hawks on the best of terms . . . Paul Pierce is not one of those athletes who claims to ignore what is written about him. He tweeted about a Yahoo! Sports report that said he did not enjoy his recent trip to China, where he participated in an exhibition game with Minnesota forward Michael Beasley. The report stated that Pierce had a difficult time breathing in the arena in Shaungyshan, and suffered an asthma attack. Yahoo!, however, only quoted a Chinese basketball blog and didn’t report the happenings as fact. That didn’t stop Pierce from calling out the Yahoo! reporter and denying he has asthma.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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