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Young Buck

Jennings, with a great haircut, as a McDonald's All American

Jennings, with a great haircut, as a McDonald's All American

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, say many. But empirical evaluation and advanced metrics are popular now, and many well-heeled sports fans might object to that sentiment: Statistics, they might say, best show what an athlete did in competition. They help explain the zero-sum game better than the won-loss record. When a player scores, he wins. Someone got beat, and the scorer made them pay, and it remains in the stat line. But stats do not depict the whole story, and too big a reliance on numbers can lead to a misevaluation, which is what happened with Brandon Jennings.

Don’t pay for past performance, say many in baseball. Don’t gladly pay (with cheap prospects) today for a (pricy) home run hitter tomorrow. Don’t look for a slugger in free agency, either, since he will cost a draft pick — a young player under club control. Don’t pay too much for a 30-year-old whose best days, and stats, are likely behind him; don’t pay good money for what happened in the past. But in the case of Jennings, a heralded Compton point guard whose bad grades sent him to Italy to play pro basketball, teams paid for past performance when they didn’t sign him.

Jennings is leading his rookie class in scoring and PER, and on Saturday he set a Milwaukee Bucks franchise record with 55 points. He’s the youngest player in NBA history to score 50 points, beating LeBron. The teams which passed on Jennings in this year’s draft, nine in all, are reeling. Points are an overrated stat1 — not everyone can get enough looks to score, and some who put up big numbers are inefficient — but scoring 50 is special, and Jennings has been holding his own with the class even before his big night.

Nine teams passed on Jennings because of his attitude and his lack of production in Europe. Jennings, who in his senior year of high school was voted the Naismith High School Basketball Player of the Year, Gatorade Player of the Year, Parade Magazine Player of the Year and EA Sports Player of the Year, averaged 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 16 Euroleague games, and didn’t do better in the Italian League. Thanks to the disappointing year abroad, Jennings was not guaranteed to be a lottery pick, and showed up late to the draft so viewers wouldn’t have to suffer another Brady Quinn-type humiliation. Jennings had a reputation as a prospect of having attitude problems, many of which came to the forefront when he was in Italy. He was insolent and pouted too much, he didn’t take to his new role, he was kicked out of practice and he was unpunctual.2 This helped rationalize his middling production: The entitled kid did not appear to be doing much of anything in Italy. A lauded playmaker in high school (at Oak Hill, the best prep school for basketball in America, where Melo, Rondo, Mike Beasley, Durant, and my boy DeSagana Diop3 went), Jennings didn’t put up many assists in Italy. He had so much handle as a high schooler that he beat some big deal All-Americans at 16, but with Roma, he wasn’t getting by anyone. Hell, his coach didn’t even play him that much. People wondered if he should have sucked it up and gone to college.

Europe was different than college, though, and Jennings didn’t put up numbers for Roma like he would have for his first-choice school, Arizona. FIBA teams are not in the habit of handing the reins over to young bucks. He would been the “quarterback of the offense” in Arizona, but in Italy his role, as he explained to The New York Times, was to “play D and take open shots.” Jennings was to cede minutes to bigger, older players. Good play and practices would not help. Maybe this discouraged him, maybe it affected his play — I don’t know, I wasn’t there — but it definitely shriveled his stat line. He might have been getting better, and some scouts indeed thought competing against older pros was his quickest route to progress, but on defense, the kid was getting crossed up, and on offense, he wasn’t scoring 60 anymore — his career high in the Euroleague was 17 points.

And so it got messy. Teams wrote him off doubly, on old school issues and new school lack of production. He had a bad attitude, and he wasn’t efficient; he was a whiner, and he couldn’t score. But was that true? His points fell off terribly — from 32.7 in high school to 7.6 in Europe — but that’s to be expected from a point guard with a weak shot in a jump-shooting league. He wasn’t putting up numbers, but the skinny 19-year-old in a league full of men was progressing and holding his own, and by the end, he was looking less outmatched.4 Were he in Tuscon, playing 40 minutes as the point guard, he’d have put up much prettier numbers, but in fewer games, with fewer practices and travel, and against inferior players.

So Jennings, the bad kid with the bad stats, fell to 10.5 Milwaukee, which botched the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 before picking a white guy last year, finally got it right and pounced on the deal, and is now experiencing a basketball renaissance. Aside from some controversial comments, it’s been smooth sailing. Not everyone can score efficiently in basketball, but Jennings has been doing so at a heralded clip. He holds a decent shooting percentage, and, through Monday, has fewer turnovers than assists. In only a few games, the rookie looks at ease. On Saturday he set a Bucks scoring record. In the best league in the world, he was finally getting the minutes. And after a year in exile, he was finally putting up some points.

    Footnotes

  1. Simply put, teams overpay for scorers, even if they are defensive liabilities or can't rebound. Points is like batting average, it doesn't explain everything.
  2. One team took him off its board after scouts waited on him to show for a pre-draft workout.
  3. "NBA's Akon," 26 seconds in.
  4. And this was in a year when some fine NBA players returned to Europe.
  5. As one analyst predicted.