Milwaukee Bucks Essays: Still Waiting On Brandon Jennings

In this photo, Brandon Jennings is merely warming up. Maybe he's just been warming up during his first three years in the NBA as well. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

You may not believe it, but my Brandon Jennings experience started exactly like yours did. When the Milwaukee Bucks' point guard pulled off remarkable achievements during his first few months in the NBA, I found myself somewhere in the chorus of ecstatic Bucks fans making unremarkable comments like "holy crap this kid is the real deal!" Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut are the primary reasons I'm even writing on the internet at all, in fact.

Prior to the magical start to Jennings' rookie campaign, I had never written even a single comment on an online sports website, let alone researched or typed out a story like this one. Not a single comment on a blog or sports network ever came from Steve von Horn prior to February 17, 2010. None. Not under a pseudonym. Not under a friend's account. Just. Plain. Never.

How do I know my first post came on Feb. 17, 2010? Well, the evidence still exists on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website:

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That e-mail address is now defunct, as I've since graduated from the Marquette University Law School, but all of my old comments are still floating around from the Fear The Deer season. At that moment I felt so good about the long-term future of the Milwaukee Bucks with Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut that for the first time in 25 years felt compelled to create an account to join an online community. Talk about optimism!

The screen name came from a rec league team my law school friends and I had recently formed (in case you wondered), but the key point is that I needed another outlet to toss around ideas, observations and analysis around without annoying my few friends who actually liked the NBA and tolerated a bit of Bucks talk. I spent most of my time defending the blind spots in his game while the 19-year-old point flashed brighter on the floor than I even remember T.J. Ford doing during his impressive rookie season.

One user developed the screen name "Fandom Lemmings" as a critical response to the deluge of early praise and wide-eyed optimism that cropped up on the forum, but at the time I just shrugged it off. It felt clever to me, but ultimately misguided back in 2010. That guy was missing out on something special. In time, he would see the truth. At least that's what I told myself. I bet he's still waiting on that revelation.

It's funny to think that in 2012 we are all pretty much still waiting for confirmation that Jennings is worth the early hype. Everyone from the ardent believer to the disillusioned doubter is still talking about the Bucks' PG needing to take the next step. He's been making strides during his NBA career, but consider where he started in terms of scoring efficiency, it's hard to say he's jumped up to the next step. Nobody I've seen or heard is willing to unequivocally say he's already there, not even eloquent enthusiasts like Mitchell Maurer or Dan Sinclair.

I've written a lot about Jennings since joining the site. Maybe too much. For me, he's always been the most important player to write about. The future of Brandon Jennings matters more than anything else to the Bucks franchise. Paying him too much in a long-term extension would matter. Getting a game-breaker on a discount deal would matter too. But this has always been the case and is still the subject I'm writing about. Is he worth the long-term investment? Is he a core player on a championship-caliber team? My message has been forceful over the past few years, but I've also worked to make it reasonable, evidence-based and developed on fair grounds.

After starting in the same place as so many Bucks fans back in 2010, I'm curious to see if we can cut through the perceptions and find out how far apart we really are heading into 2012-13. I've already wasted enough words in this essay, so here are the main points from every major article I've written about Jennings since joining SB Nation back in April of 2011. All story dates include a link to the original piece, so feel free to read each one to get a deeper sense of what I've actually said. Let me know how far apart we really stand. It's something I've always been interested to explore.

As we've waited around for Jennings to take the next step and become a franchise centerpiece, the tone of the question has changed in very important ways. It started merely as a matter of "when" he would officially bust out. It slowly morphed into a generalized hope that he "might still" become an elite player. At some point in the last three years the question has shifted down yet another rung to one of "if" he ever breaks through. You shouldn't ignore those changes. At the same time, it's your right as a fan to hold out on 2010 hopes as long as you want. I'm just curious to know how the last three years have treated each of you. Here's how they've treated me:

December 3, 2010 (Click to Enlarge Images, if You Want to Read Them)

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April 8, 2011

The question for all Bucks fans is whether they still think Brandon Jennings is a worthy cornerstone for the future. I am no longer convinced. I cannot survive on the prospect of potential any longer, because I think the projections of his ceiling made last season have become unreachable goals as more evidence on his true skill has become available. One hundred and forty-one games is enough of a sample for me. My best comparison for Jennings at this point is Aaron Brooks: a small, streak-shooting, shoot-first PG that needs to shoot a very high percentage to make a meaningful impact.

Jan 19, 2012

Brandon Jennings is the ultimate wildcard for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2011-12, but when it comes to projections and potential, the Buck stops here. Or maybe the Bucks stop here. It all depends on how well Brandon mitigates his deficiencies and if he can maximize the impact of his immense physical skills in meaningful ways.

This is the year, right? Jennings has to make ‘the leap' to justify all of the hype that has surrounded him since he burst on the NBA scene with high-scoring performances as a rookie. How high must he ‘leap,' you ask? Frank Madden did a remarkable job presenting the vision of a reasonable transformation in Young Buck's game that would bring him to league average offensive efficiency. That seems like a good place to start, so let's break down what would constitute success and failure for Jennings this season.

Note: I never did an official post on Jennings to round out this series for the 2011-12 season because I figured it would be bad form to even bring it up, but he failed (meaning he posted below-average marks for PGs based on the previous three-year averages) with regards to FG%, 3PT%, TS%, Interior Assists and the eye test on defense. He posted tolerable marks for assist-to-turnover ratio and the PER counterpart defensive numbers. He did not succeed in any category.

January 19, 2012

So much has happened with Brandon Jennings' game since the start of the 2011-12 season, and yet so much has stayed the same. The Bucks are still in a rut, he is still taking the majority of shots while squeezing out some points along the way, and the idea of double-digit assists only comes up when talking other players on the team. For a team saddled with big contracts and dead weight, why even talk about a kid on his rookie deal? Because the Bucks should be focused on the future. They need to know whether Jennings is part of the next "core" constructed to reach a level of meaningful competition in the NBA. He might be the only one still around the next time the franchise is nationally relevant. Soon enough he will be asking for a whole lot of money to stay in Milwaukee; I hope the Bucks respectfully decline.

I'm sure this premise will rub people the wrong way, but I too dreamed of great things for Brandon Jennings at one point in his career. I consider myself disillusioned by the weight of the evidence. You might consider me delusional. In any case, I intend to lay out my approach and thought process on how I got to where I am regarding the Bucks' point guard.

...So here we are, 2600 words later but not far from where we started. Once again, the tantalizing results are contained in a small sample size, while the overwhelming weight of the evidence casts a dark and expansive shadow on Jennings as a player. It's almost odd that I timed this post for the best stretch of play Jennings has ever shown, but maybe he can't do what I think an offensive centerpiece or core player needs to be able to anyways. With Jennings it feels like death by a thousand cuts. Never anything major to signal crippling inefficiency or limits on his future development, but rather a creeping mediocrity that largely goes unnoticed amid a sea of other more expensive and eye-catching wreckage. Heck, maybe I'm looking in all the wrong places. In any case, I've made my mind up. When the Bucks finally begin rebuilding in earnest, I believe they are going to need a new point guard.

January 21, 2012

Just a few days ago I wrote this article suggesting Brandon Jennings should not be considered a core player if the Milwaukee Bucks want to build a championship caliber team (but why else do teams bother building cores anyways, right?). It didn't exactly go over well. Most people like the youth, potential, competitive fire and everything else that comes with Jennings, and aren't ready to consider the possibility that he might not be the proper player on which to pin the future hopes of the franchise. I get that.

...I don't dislike Brandon Jennings. I dislike the Bucks taking the long odds in the gamble and hoping he is some sort of outlier in the NBA landscape that can turn 2300 shots worth of league-worst type performance and suddenly turn around to produce all-star shooting efficiency in his next 2300 shots. It's a dangerous gamble for a franchise teetering on a rebuild to give big money on Jennings and pray for him to be that once-in-a-decade outlier. That was the point of the article. Trusting the odds doesn't always pay off, and I could have lost a lot of money to someone whom I bet heads would not come up 15 times in 20 tosses of a coin, by my belief is that playing the odds is still always the right thing to do and will pay off over time. To me, it's what an organization serious about building a championship contender does.

I would love to be wrong about this. I will be the first one to happily admit the mistake when Jennings is leading the Bucks to deep playoffs runs and piling up all-star appearances. I desperately want the Bucks to become a great team during my lifetime (born in 1985), and if Brandon Jennings can overcome the pile of evidence that says he can't be an impact player I will be positively ecstatic. It's just one hell of a gamble...

February 9, 2012

While I believe that some players do make subtle improvements over time as they shift into different roles, develop different skills and fine-tune their decision-making on the court, there is still the harsh reality that many players do not. The vast wasteland of busted picks in nearly every NBA draft class is enough to prove there is no law of nature that says third-year point guards must make a serious improvement to their game. Along the same lines, there are plenty of examples that show some players just get it from day one. Look no further than guys like Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry for confirmation.

Of course, Jennings is clearly not a bust, but his value is somewhat in flux at this point. His role has never really changed. He's either the low-grade volume scorer sent to banish the Bucks to mediocrity, or the explosive scorer to save them from it. Or maybe he's both and just oscillates between the two extremes unpredictably. After all, everything from his shot opportunities to his minutes have stayed almost exactly the same over the course of his entire career. Sure, he has eliminated that dreadful step back jumper from his repertoire, but his half-court execution has left plenty to be desired.

...A faster pace is not a panacea, as his career splits still leave him below-average in most categories -- but an incremental solution is likely staring the Bucks dead in the face. Run. Run like real expectations of winning are chasing you. Even the harshest realist (like me), who might say the 11-game surge this season is more a product of luck than any fundamental and material transformation in shot-making ability and is likely to regress to the less-pronounced splits -- which is eminently more reasonable than surmising he has suddenly developed above-average shooting skills that only manifest at a pace above 96 -- still believes running is the best thing the Bucks can do.

Aside from developing a more entertaining product to get butts into the seats, it is almost certainly a strategy that will once and for all reveal what the team has in Brandon Jennings. The right thing to do is find out what Jennings can do in his system, because below-average play isn't quite as charming or swagtastic when the rookie scale salary inflates to 10+ million per year in the next deal he signs. Maybe that's part of why he has been so passive since his big night against the Miami Heat. If the Bucks waste this opportunity and ignore these splits, we are all screwed, because nobody can save them from themselves.

July 26, 2012

Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis both shoot the ball a lot. Jennings attempted 1122 shots last season, which turned out to be 465 more shots than the next closest teammate -- Drew Gooden finished with 657 shot attempts. In fact, Jennings took more shots than every possible pair of Bucks players combined other than Gooden and Ersan Ilyasova (combined total of 1254 attempts). The same is true of his three-point attempts (except the lone pairing that exceeds his total is Carlos Delfino and Mike Dunleavy).

Jennings shot 41.9 percent from the field -- below the league average of 44.8% -- and 33.2 percent from beyond the arc -- below the league average of 34.9%. If we look at Monta Ellis' numbers from the entire season, the same basic analysis from above applies to him. He shot more often than any other player on the Bucks and converted less than the hypothetical average NBA player from the field and behind the three-point line. These two guys aren't going to suddenly stop shooting in 2012-13. Heck, the Bucks have designed the offense around them.

So how can Milwaukee make the most of this pairing? I can hear at least one of you saying: "but Steve, they make each other better!" Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case during their time together on the court last season. In fact, they produced at rates worse than the numbers quoted above when paired together on the floor. You are free to write off those results using the "they didn't have a training camp" umbrella, but even under that logic there is no reasonable basis to think they make each other better. If you prefer to take it all on faith alone, the Bucks' marketing department salutes you.

...So how can the Bucks build a better offense for the upcoming season? The basic answer is that Skiles should shuffle the lineups more often. Jennings needs to play off the ball, and Udrih is the ideal PnR man to lead the group of shooters (Dunleavy, Ilyasova, Jennings) on the floor. Udrih could also play with Ellis and do the same thing, with the added benefit that Monta would have Udrih as an effective option coming off-screens or setting up for hand offs during his inevitable slew of isolation opportunities.

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