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NBA AM: The Maturation Of Brandon Jennings

The journey for Brandon Jennings has been unique to say the least.

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The Maturation Of Brandon Jennings:  It was a typical unbearably hot day in the summer of 2008 in Las Vegas. NBA players were running drills at the Tarkanian Center, then home to the famed Impact Basketball training center. On one side of the court was Jermaine O’Neal, who had just been traded to the Toronto Raptors, on the other end of the court was a skinny high school point guard from Compton California – Brandon Jennings. He was drawing rave reviews from the veteran NBA players for his knack for finding them in transition; he’d been working with the NBA players for a few weeks and was finding his place among some of the biggest names in the game.

There were a couple of international scouts in the building watch to Jennings work, including scouts from the famed Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. The word at the time was Jennings was not going to be academically eligible for college and was strongly considering playing a year in Europe as opposed to navigating the eligibility process for college basketball.

The scouts had lots of questions. What kind of person was he? Why couldn’t he get eligible? Were there bad people in his life? In between questions Jennings would flash to the basket or make an amazing pass drawing pauses and the intrigue of those spectating.

After the work out Jennings came to the side and sat among those of us there to watch. He politely declined an on the record interview, after clearing it with his mother who sat watching. Both were more than happy to chit chat, especially about his eventual pro opportunities. Jennings was unsure of where he’d sign and was flattered by all the attention he was getting. He had a sheepish way about him that never measured up to the playground swagger he showed on the court.

A few days later Jennings signed with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma in Italy and skipped the college process altogether. Jennings signed the first basketball shoe deal with Under Armour and was supposed to take Europe by storm. It didn’t work out that way. He struggled with the demands of professional life in Italy. He pushed back against coaches that demanded more of him than he wanted to give. He struggled with limited playing time. Italy padded his bank account, but it was far from the career-defining situation it was supposed to be.

Jennings entered the 2009 NBA Draft and was supposed to be one of the top players selected. He worked out for several teams but there was far more negative than positive buzz for the 6’1 guard from Compton. Some teams wondered if he was coachable. There were stories that he did not take the pre-draft process very seriously and that had many teams concerned about how that would translate in the NBA.

Jennings was invited to take part in the NBA Draft Green Room, being a guest of the NBA and having a seat in front of the stage to await his name being called. The day prior to the draft Jennings was surrounded by media with questions, many of them negative, and said he had no idea where he’s be drafted.

The next day as the 2009 draft was getting underway a note was circulated to the media that Jennings was opting not to attend the draft after all. His agent issued a statement saying that they were unclear of when or where Jennings would be drafted so he was going to stay with his family at the hotel.

As pick after pick started to fall off the board, there was a sense that maybe Jennings wasn’t going to get drafted nearly as high as expected, then with the 10th pick the Milwaukee Bucks selected him. Back at the hotel several blocks away in mid-town Manhattan, Jennings was shuttled into a car and raced to the stage, popping out after the 14th pick to shake hands with then Commissioner David Stern.

That’s how Jennings got here. If it seems a little crazy, it’s because it was. Along he way Jennings has been labeled many things: malcontent, knucklehead, uncoachable and a ball hog.

At times in his NBA career those all seemed somewhat appropriate. Jennings time with the Milwaukee Bucks had some flashes of brilliance. He scored 55 points his rookie season, becoming the first Bucks rookie to do so since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1970.

As with most inconsistent players, Jennings had equally as many bad games as good ones for the Bucks. So, when it came time to re-new Jennings’ contract the Bucks opted to trade him rather than pay him, sending him to the Detroit Pistons in 2013.

Much like in Milwaukee, Jennings had a few impressive games early in his stint with the Pistons, but was mostly a source of frustration for fans and the coaches that tried to steer him.

This past offseason the Pistons hired Stan Van Gundy to oversee the entire basketball operation and to coach the team. It was commonly believed Van Gundy would look to jettison Jennings as quickly as he could, mainly because of the unpredictable nature of the mercurial point guard.

But a funny thing happened this season. Jennings wasn’t the screw up many thought he’d be under Van Gundy. In fact, he’s been quite the opposite.

Early in the season Jennings, with the same coy smile and sheepish demeanor he had in 2008, said he was enjoying having a coach like Van Gundy, and that he was ready to be coached to expand his game. At the time it seemed like lip service, yet another player saying what the media wanted to hear, but with 43 games under his belt as the lead guard for Van Gundy’s Pistons, it seems that Jennings may have been right. He’s posting some of his most efficient basketball stats of his career. Jennings has not only looked like a totally different player, he is looking like the player many expected him to be back in that Vegas gym in 2008.

The Pistons have been resurgent as of late, some of that is due to dropping forward Josh Smith, but the bigger part has been the way Jennings has assumed the leadership role in Detroit.

Over the last ten games the Pistons have won seven, in that same span Jennings has scored 19.2 points per game while handing out eight assists per average. So far in January the Pistons have won nine of their 12 games played and Jennings is averaging 21.3 points per game. He notched a 35 point game against the Kings, a 34 point game versus the Raptors and 24 points and a career high 21 assists last night versus the Orlando Magic.

They say it takes time for a player to find their place in the NBA. For Jennings, the journey has been extremely unique to say the least, but it seems that finally he may have a home and place to really blossom.

Changing Rookie Sophomore:  The NBA has for some time struggled with the right way to showcase its up and coming players. The Rising Stars Challenge as its now called has had five incarnations with its sixth set for this year.

The inaugural game was in 1994 with Team Phenoms facing off against Team Sensations. Each roster was constructed of eight players comprised of both rookies and sophomore players.

In 1995 the format was somewhat the same but the team names changed to Team White and Team Green and had eight players each.

The 1996 game was the first Team East versus Team West model. The East versus West format stayed the course through the 1998 game, which expanded the roster to nine players on each team.

The 2000 game was the first appearance of the true rookie versus sophomore series, and returned to eight players per team. The 2001 game returned to nine players, with the same rookie versus sophomore format and it stayed that way through the 2012 game.

In 2012 the NBA turned the game into a “draft” format with Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley drafting teams from a player pool of rookies and sophomores. The rosters were expanded to 10 players. O’Neal and Barkley drafted teams for 2012 and 2013. In 2014, Chris Webber and Grant Hill did the drafting, using the same format and the rosters were ten players.

Steve Kyler’s US Team

Guard  Victor Oladipo
Guard  Michael Carter-Williams
Guard  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Guard  Trey Burke
Front  Robert Covington
Front  Shabazz Muhammad
Front  K.J. McDaniels
Front  Nerlens Noel
Flex  Mason Plumlee
Flex  Elfrid Payton

Steve Kyler’s World Team

Guard  Dennis Schroder
Guard  Bojan Bogdanovic
Guard  Dante Exum
Guard  Sergey Karasev
Front  Andrew Wiggins
Front  Giannis Antetokounmpo
Front  Kelly Olynyk
Front  Gorgui Dieng
Flex  Nikola Mirotic
Flex  Steven Adams

Post Your Teams In The Comments Section

Yesterday, the NBA announced that a new version of the game would be played as part of the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend, wherein the format would remain ten players apiece, however the rosters would be comprised of US players versus World players.

The jist of the selection process is that the assistant coaches from the 30 NBA teams will select both 10-man rosters using a ballot method. The selections must include four guards, four frontcourt players and two players regardless of position. Each team must also have a minimum of three first-year players and three second-year players among its 10 spots.

At first glance the new system seems a little strange, however when you look at the player pool from which the coaches are likely choosing from, this new format might produce a very balanced and competitive game.

For years the NBA has tried to find a format for the rookie sophomore game that could draw an audience and make the game an event, we’ll see if US versus the World can do better than Team Shaq versus Team Chuck.

It can’t get any worse right?

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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