Back in August 2006, Brandon Jennings seemed to have the basketball world in his hands.
After starring at Oak Hill Academy, Jennings found himself as the top ranked prospect by both Scout.com and ESPN. He decided to attend the University of Southern California before changing his mind and declaring his allegiance to the University of Arizona.
Finally, shortly before the 2008 NBA Draft, Jennings let it be known that he would instead head to Italy and begin his professional career. After all, he had to find some way to bide his time until he was draft-eligible in 2009.
Since the time when Jennings was finishing up at Oak Hill, because of the age restriction agreed upon by the league and the union in the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, players like him have had to wait at least one year following their high school graduation year to declare for the NBA.
The rule has given rise to the “one-and-done” freshman — players who are good enough to become lottery picks in the NBA but are forced to spend a year playing collegiately. Jennings, though, took a different path. He instead blazed a trail that saw him forgo college for the professional ranks in Europe. His career has been an unquestioned success, but with the NBA and its players union hammering out the details of what will be the 2017 collective bargaining agreement, a reported increase in the annual salaries paid to NBA D-League players could help the league become a viable third option for NBA-bound players who want to earn a wage or feel they would benefit from playing against other aspiring professionals.
As reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein, under the 2017 CBA, salaries for D-League players are expected to rise dramatically, increasing from about $25,000 per year to somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000.
Of course, those figures pale in comparison to the $1.2 million Jennings signed for, but for a great majority of players, the nine-year pro thinks it could make sense.
“I think it just depends on if they can’t get the type of money that they want to go overseas,” Jennings told Basketball Insiders.
“Some guys go overseas for $75,000,” he said, realizing that if the financial implications were similar, most players would prefer to play in the D-League merely for the benefit of being closer to (and more easily seen by) NBA power brokers.
“The D-League wouldn’t be bad, just the fact that NBA teams can see you every day and see your skills and see how good you’re getting. At that time when I was coming up, I didn’t even really think about the D-League like that, but I feel like I made the best decision for myself… It just depends on your situation.”
Another factor that could weigh heavily on future players is comfort-zone. Before packing his bags for Italy, Jennings had never left the country. But the prospect of moving to Europe was made less daunting after moving from his native Compton, California to attend Oak Hill in Southwest Virginia. But for a great many 17- and 18-year-old high school kids, the thought of moving to Italy, Spain or Greece may be as off putting as it is exciting. It truly would depend on the player’s situation.
“I didn’t mind leaving because I had already left,” Jennings said. “I was at Oak Hill for two years. For me, I didn’t mind being away for home, it was just way further and way different, especially the language.”
In the end, though, Jennings thought that the move to Italy was the right one for him. And it’s hard to argue with the results. Nine years into his career, he’s averaging 15.5 points, 5.9 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. He is certainly a starting-caliber point guard who’s mostly lived up to the expectations.
For most American-born players, college offers a rite of passage where young men grow into adults and a social atmosphere that often breeds maturity. The educational opportunity is also a great one, but, as Jennings has proven, there may be more than one road to the same place.
In fact, there may now be three. With the D-League continuing to house its players, provide medical coverage and a reasonable $50 per-diem, the financial landscape has shifted dramatically. Don’t be surprised if, within the next few years, there are high school players opting for the D-League over college.
“I would never tell a kid not to go to college, my decision was just for my decision, for my family,” Jennings said. “I would tell [a prospect] to make sure it’s the decision that he wants, not the decision that everyone wants for him – because if he regrets it, it’s on him.”
As it stands, there is a fair amount of discord as to who the true beneficiary is of the NBA’s age requirement. Of course, there are benefits to opting for a long, storied college career, just as there are benefits to beginning as a pro.
“I think just, honestly, just being able to play with grown men every day and seeing different things in the world,” Jennings responded when asked about the benefits of becoming a pro when he did. “My mindset, when I came back, was totally different… To be around grown men every day, to practice every day, the things I went through, I felt like it was a time of my life where everything was uncomfortable and I felt like I responded well.”
In all likelihood, any player in the predicament that Jennings was in would have similar experiences and benefits. The debate as to whether the age requirement is good for the league or not will persist, but in the end, with the D-League now offering a more competitive salary, there may be an additional option for high schoolers with their eyes on the NBA.
And that, we can all agree, is a good thing.
Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.
Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.
Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.
That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.
Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.
Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.
“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.
“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”
In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.
What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.
From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.
There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.
So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.
Instead, he did the opposite.
“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.
“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.
Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.
Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.
Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.
I think not.
Death, taxes and the Spurs.
So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.
Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.
But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.
NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly
Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.
It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.
“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”
Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.
At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.
“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.
Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.
“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”
Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.
His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.
“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”
“Yep,” Bazemore replied.
“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”
Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.
“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”
With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.
Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.
Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court
Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.
The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.
Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.
But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.
As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.
For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.
It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.
Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.
It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.
Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.
Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.
By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.
As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.
It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.
Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.
On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one.
Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.
Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.
This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.