The last time I can remember meaningful basketball being played in Milwaukee, the team was led by a diminuitive guard with a knack for scoring. But even more than that, his charisma dominated the environment around the team; the smallest man on the court had the biggest personality by far. Surrounded by a collection of role players, he was the unlikely star of the story, and you knew that he would leave his impression on the game every night.
That was in June of 2001, when the Philadelphia 76ers bested the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The player I described is none other than Allen Iverson, the 6'0" MVP who towered over teammates and opponents alike. But when you think about it, you can apply those same statements to our own number 3. And that is what has people actually excited again.
Brandon Jennings is easily the most polarizing figure in Milwaukee basketball over the last ten years. Nobody else has had the potential to single-handedly turn the momentum of a Bucks game in a long, long time. While he's had his share of off nights where he kept Milwaukee out of it, there's a lot more going right this year than going wrong.
But it's more than just a third-year point guard turning the corner and becoming a top-tier player (which he's not...not yet). It's about an infusion of life and personality into an organization that has been starved of it for years. What does Brandon Jennings mean to professional basketball in Milwaukee?First of all, we must address the significant improvement of Jennings' play this year. With a lockout condensing the season and making official summer workouts nonexistant, the path towards shoring up Jennings' weaknesses was more difficult than it had to be. But to his credit, Jennings both said the right things and backed it up with actions; this fantastic article from HoopSpeak takes the cliches and describes how they've become actual, tangible improvements.
His stated goal was to increase his shooting percentage to 40%. A low mark, but a realistic one compared to his 2010-11 performance. He's gone beyone that, putting up a respectable line of .438/.380/.812, and an adjusted FG% of .508, within the top 50 of the NBA. He's gotten much better at taking quality attempts, focusing more on getting to the rim and eschewing the infamous long 2-pointer for the more valuable three-point shot.
While his assists have not gone up as much, his passing is improved and the 5.6 assists per game is more a product of him actually out-shooting his teammates. Jennings has attempted 368 total field goals, making 161 of them (43.8%). The rest of the team combined has attempted 1302, making 564 of them (43.3%). The team's overall shooting percentage ranks 20th in the NBA, which still isn't particularly good, but it is far from the dead-last performance from last year. If his teammates make more shots (and he passes up on a few ill-advised of his own), his assists could creep up above the 6.0 mark, which will be yet another career high.
His defense has not suffered as much as some might think, either. According to 82games.com, his 48-minute production by position PER is a healthy 19.1, while his counterpart is near the league average (15.2). He's contributing to his team's success while helping limit his counterpart's impact, with a differential of +3.9.
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On the court, everything is just better. Better than last year, better than the last guy, better than most of his NBA counterparts. But I would contend that Brandon Jennings' on-court prowess is merely a fraction of the reason why he's so important to NBA basketball in Milwaukee.
Consider again the Allen Iverson paradigm. A small man in a sport populated by giants should have no business imposing his will on the game, but A.I. did just that. But even beyond that, he was a national lightning rod and a cultural icon. He didn't make the NBA what it is now, but he affected the environment around it. His image was praised by some and reviled by others, but what was most important was that it was his image, not one given to him by a coach or an owner or a city.
The NBA is a sport run by superstars, and Iverson was the first one to really allow the world to see who he was. He did not put up a facade, he did not fake his way through interviews, and he did not mince words with anyone. He would shoot when he wanted, score when he wanted, and anybody who wanted to step to him would go right ahead, if you please, but only if you're willing to accept the consequences. Call him a hero or call him a thug; he called himself Allen.
This admittedly lengthy tangent (which also serves as a love note to one of my all-time favorite players) does not directly relate to Jennings, but it helped set the stage for what Jennings is (and can become). Compton upbringing aside, Brandon does not have the checkered past that Iverson had. His cross-country transfer to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia was as much about basketball as it was getting into an environment more conducive to his development as both an athlete and a person.
Oak Hill was where he demonstrated the skills, but the national spotlight was where he brought out the swag. Displaying the high-top fade at the McDonald's All-American Game (in Milwaukee!) was just the beginning. The top-ranked college recruit and winner of (at least) 4 prestigious player of the year awards had a chance to attend big-time NCAA hoops programs...and turned them all down. Instead, he wanted to prove a point by signing with Lottomatica Roma in the top Italian league.
His time in Rome was both a financial success and a basketball head-scratcher. His stats were far from impressive, as he clearly struggled to adjust to both the European game and actually being held accountable by a coaching staff. But the contract he signed with the club was outdone by the deal struck with UnderArmour, as Brandon became the headliner for the brand's foray into the basketball world. Going against juggernauts like Nike and Reebok would be folly for anyone who didn't relish the role of "underdog"...but we all know how Jennings feels about that.
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Then came the 2009 draft, where Jennings stayed at the hotel to avoid the embarrassment that comes with slipping out of the lottery. After all, he was an unproven commodity who struggled in an overseas league, how good could he be? But when the Bucks selected him at 10th overall, it only took him 3 more picks to make his way to Radio City Music Hall and meet David Stern on the stage. The underdog was being given a shot, and he wanted everybody to know it.
Soon after the draft, Jennings got a call from rapper Joe Budden, who unbeknownst to him decided to broadcast the conversation live on the Internet (link NSFW). Jennings' ego definitely got the best of him, where he put the following people on blast: Ricky Rubio, Jordan Hill, the Knicks fans, the Knicks in general, Chris Duhon, and eventually Budden himself. It was an unfortunate PR hit, but Jennings never backed down from what he said (and still won't, if his performances against the Knicks are any indication).
Jennings mentioned that he didn't know if Scott Skiles would start him, but start he did, and he got off to a fast one. We all remember the Night of 55, which set the expectation for Jennings' rookie year higher than he could reach. But there were always those flashes of brilliance, and the fact that he started all 82 games and helped take the Atlanta Hawks to six games in the first round gave us hope that he could get back to that level.
Everyone was disappointed when he regressed heavily during his sophomore campaign. Sure, the broken foot didn't help matters, but we all thought that the fast start was a fluke. He was just another undersized shooting guard running the point, and not running it particularly well. A shooter with a broken shot isn't worth having, is it? Everyone lost confidence in Jennings, and I'm sure that there was some doubt within Jennings himself. If he wanted to recapture that magic, to get that swagger back, he would have to get back to what he did best. He needed to have fun again.
Oddly enough, the lockout gave Jennings a chance to do what he does best: have fun playing basketball. The level of competition here is nothing compared to the Association, but I'll be damned if I don't grin every time I see Brandon bounce the rock off that poor kid's forehead. The lockout also gave him more time to train physically, which you can see through the excellent Under the Armour series. With Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 playing in the background, Brandon Jennings let his swag regenerate and reinforce his confidence in his own abilities while maintaining the beloved underdog role. Sure, it might have been corporate branding, but don't try to tell me that Jennings struggled to play the role of "Curator of Cool".
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When everything comes together is when beautiful things can happen. For Brandon Jennings, when the natural ability, the grueling offseason work, the youthful exuberance, and the pure, unadulterated swag all come together, this is what you get:
Against three of the most talented players in the world and one of the toughest defenses in the league, Jennings simply imposed himself over the visiting Heat. But that's not even the best part. Watch the video again, and go to the 2:13 mark.
Look at the crowd.
Brandon Jennings can do what most think is impossible. In a season when we expect nothing, he can make NBA basketball in Milwaukee relevant again. And all he has to do is be himself. That is what he means to us.
Allen Iverson was himself, and the city of Philadelphia embraced him for it. Brandon Jennings is himself, and the city of Milwaukee is starting to truly accept him.