Saying goodbye to Brandon Jennings, who never made it easy to believe

USA TODAY Sports

After four years spent dreaming about potential, reality finally caught up to the Bucks and Brandon Jennings.

I started writing a Brandon Jennings farewell post 3 months ago. Jennings was wrapping up the most frustrating season of his professional career, wrought with uneven play and near-constant criticism. There were rumors of discontentment in the locker room, and questions of contracts and market size commanded far more attention than anyone would have liked. So it seemed like the right time to start considering the possibility that he could be calling a new city home in a matter of months. Hell, it was more than something to consider, it was something to come to terms with.

Jennings united the fanbase in utter euphoria just seven games into his rookie season, in the midst of an stunning run Bucks fans could barely have hoped for. It was love-at-first-sight on the basketball court, and Bucks fans were heartsick. The immediate bond between team, city, and fans would have flummoxed even the brightest chemists. That’s what happens when you drop a flashy young superstar-in-the-making into a city starving for a hardwood savior.

There’s no need to rehash the rest, which is sort of ridiculous since "the rest" is 96% of Jennings’ career. The NBA is peppered with flashes of brilliance that fade into the haze moments later. It’s easy to say Jennings’s story is no different. Easy to write off his time with the Bucks as reliant on a mirage that appeared briefly four years ago. That’s what I thought I should do when I started banging out a goodbye to the player who inspired the site where I got started with all this. No more speculation, no more qualification, no more rationalization. Jennings is what he is by now. We know what he can do and we know how it all works out—the Bucks are, by some measures, a far superior team when he’s sitting on the bench.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t slap a final verdict on a player who figured so prominently in a grand thought experiment, defined by uncertainty. Or hope, if we’re being charitable. I don’t know if I still believe in Brandon Jennings like I used to, but I definitely think there’s more to his story than what we’ve seen to date.

Belief ran up against the cold concrete wall of an $8 million contract extension and 2,732 missed shots.

What’s obvious after seeing the Bucks cut bait on their ex-future-superstar is that 55-point games and swagger in spades don’t mean a thing when faced with the stark realities of the NBA. It’s not just that a peek below the surface reveals how ineffective Jennings’ can be, and often was. The Bucks simply couldn’t afford to be dreamers anymore. Belief ran up against the cold concrete wall of an $8 million contract extension and 2,732 missed shots. The welcome wore out like it has with so many other players who accomplished much more or much less during their days in Milwaukee.

What’s not so clear is whether any of that is going to matter for Jennings going forward. Things were so dysfunctional for so much of his tenure that it’s not unreasonable to think his growth was stunted. In fact, that’s just what the Detroit Pistons are banking on. Jennings looks like a decent fit for their squad: a solid shooter from deep who can take care of the ball and run the offense at least as well as his predecessor. Opinions are divided, and I’m guessing one’s attachment to the early days of the 2009-2010 season provide a pretty clear line of demarcation. Still think they’re real? Maybe the Motor City can recapture the magic. If not, Detroit just bought itself a big headache at a bad time.

It’s always bugged me to hear that night when Golden State came to town referred to as the "worst thing to happen to Brandon Jennings". In what world does a sensational display of ability early in a career mark the beginning of the end? I’m as guilty—more so, probably—as the next person for putting too much value on it, for hanging on way too long, but that’s my fault. There was never a right way for Jennings’ career to play out. The guy skipped college to play in Europe, for cryin’ out loud. Did he peak too early? Maybe, though it’s possibly wrong to consider that string of games a peak at all. He’s the quintessential high-variance player. There was bound to be a spike in the data, we just didn’t expect to see it so quickly. It was like 50 monkeys got together and hammered out "Two households, both alike in dignity" on the first day before descending back into banana-smeared gibberish, and we got mad at the monkeys.

What makes Jennings’ tale remarkable to me now is that, at the end, it looks so unremarkable. To start with such promise and end mired in frustration; you’d never know the coals were once a roaring flame if you hadn’t seen it yourself. I’ve romanticized his time as Bucks point guard more than was probably advisable (still am), but don’t mistake acknowledgement for regret. It was fun to believe, even if it wasn’t easy. Now the pressure’s off. I have little real stock in where things go from here when it comes to Brandon Jennings. And in truth, it’s probably best for my other allegiances if things continue to smolder, rather than ignite, before just fading away. Part of me will be disappointed if things play out that way, though. I wanted great things for Jennings, even if it was just to validate my interest and the jersey hanging in my closet. No matter how bad things got, I believed in Brandon Jennings. I realize now that belief can be a dangerous cloak on reality. But it was comfortable, and it sure beat accepting the now-apparent truth, that everything was just a big mess. Ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s just a lot better than bad news.

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