Revisiting Brandon Jennings' assist explosion: How has the pass-first persona held up?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Jennings seemed to reinvent himself as a player shortly after the All-Star break, piling up assists like he never had before. Has he been able to keep up that trend over the last month?

He may not be obliterating career highs every night like he did back when this all began, but Brandon Jennings' rebirth as a point guard is still evident in stretches more than a month later. Since he first blew up against the Toronto Raptors back on March 2nd, Jennings has averaged 9.9 assists per game, beating his mark up to that point by almost four full dimes. The big bump in his assist rate (from 27.8 to 36.1) tells a more complete story, reflecting his more restrained approach to shooting in favor of looking for teammates and getting them in position to score.

It's proven critical for Jennings to sustain his new style to at least some degree, because his efficiency hasn't held up as well. His post-deadline True Shooting percentage has fallen all the way to a very poor 50.2, though it was sitting at a much more tolerable 54.7 prior to the last two games. Unsurprisingly, that fall has coincided with a rough patch for Milwaukee, though it's unclear which direction the cause/effect arrow points in this case (both ways, in all likelihood). It was easy, back when things were great and everybody was happy, to surmise Jennings might shift back to his shoot-first tendencies when the Bucks began to struggle as he took it upon himself to break them out of an offensive funk. That's never really been a great plan for Jennings and it definitely isn't working now, but unfortunately those facts haven't slowed him down: his attempts have ballooned back to 14.1 per game and he's shooting just 31.9 percent overall. His shot selection has shifted away from the three-point line as well, with only 5.5 of those attempts coming from behind the arc. Granted, he's shooting only 31.8% on those threes during the stretch in question, but I'll gladly cede that tenth of a percentage point in exchange for a higher-value shot. Realistically, though, Jennings would be best served by reconnecting with his selective side and focusing once more on passing.

Which brings us back to those assist numbers. For a reminder, here's a simple graph of Jennings' assist breakdown as it stood after the first three games:

Defense_drawn_assists_png_medium

Again, I'll emphasize that the "Draw/Kick metric" I'm using is entirely subjective and reliant on my own judgement, but if nothing else it's fairly consistent and a decent way to communicate on which plays Jennings could reasonably be given credit for "manipulating" the defense by his own devices. Here's a more detailed chart showing a similar data breakdown for every assist Jennings has had since the beginning of March:

A few notable trends:

  • In the first three games of the streak only 40% of Jennings spot-up assists came on plays where Jennings "drew" the defense. In the 10 subsequent games, Jennings has drawn the defense on about 57% of his spot-up assists. Seven of those true "draw and kick" dimes set up three-point makes. This could mean a lot of things: It could be that Jennings is truly doing a better job of driving into the lane and making the pass to open perimeter shooters, or it could simply reflect that his teammates are shooting (and hitting) less often off simple swing passes. It does seem like the Bucks are more apt to drive these days, and at the very least it looks like Jennings has embraced that to some extent.
  • Refreshingly, only 4 of Jennings assists in the pick and roll have been come on midrange jumpers, while 16 have yielded layups or dunks. A far cry from the pick and pop days of Professional Basketballer And Starting Center Drew Gooden, though Larry Sanders is getting a bit too comfortable with that jumper for my liking.
  • In fact, the majority of Jennings' assists in this span have led to layups, though it should be noted that at least a handful of those came off passes near the perimeter where the scoring player did much more of the work. Regardless, any data suggesting Jennings is setting up higher-value shots is encouraging, and it should be noted my scouting doesn't capture plays where his passes lead to shooting fouls or easy shots that simply don't go in (hopefully the cutting-edge SportVU system the Bucks have invested in captures that sort of data, or will eventually).

At the very least, low-assist games for Brandon Jennings have become something of a noteworthy occurrence these days, which is a major improvement in itself. The best part of Jennings' transformation was how it seemingly insulated him against the sort of soul-and-stat-line-crushing performances like the one he turned in against the Pacers. It was always unlikely Jennings would be to kick his bad habits cold turkey, but he'll need to redouble his efforts if the Bucks want to snap out of their current funk and make one last charge at escaping the 8th seed.

A bit better defense wouldn't hurt either.

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