In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
So much for a learning curve. Having only a year spent playing in Italy as post-high school experience, Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings was expected to struggle early in his NBA career. Instead, Jennings has been the league's best rookie in the season's first week, providing electrifying play. Jennings came within an assist and a rebound of joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to record a triple-double in their debut, and he did become the first since Atlanta's John Drew in 1974 to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists in his first game.
Entering the campaign, Jennings was really something of a mystery to me. Since he did not play on ESPN weekly, or in the NCAA Tournament, my only knowledge of his game was through second-hand sources and the limited insight offered by his mediocre Euroleague statistics. Even before Jennings became an instant sensation, then, he was high on my list of players to watch. That's why I DVRed Jennings' second NBA game on Saturday against Detroit for an Every Play Counts breakdown.
Jennings was nearly as good in his first outing in front of the home fans, scoring 14 of his team-high 24 points in the third quarter. The scoring outburst spurred a 12-0 run that gave the Bucks the lead for good. A closer look revealed plenty of strengths that could make Jennings a contender for Rookie of the Year.
The biggest surprise of what Jennings has done in his first two games has been his outside shooting. He's hit five three-pointers in nine attempts, and is 5-of-10 on long two-point shots. Even with a shorter line, Jennings shot just 26.8 percent from beyond the arc in Euroleague play, and he wasn't known as a shooter in his prep days. Jennings' form is good, but it's easy to see him cooling off from the perimeter.
Even if that's the case, Jennings has shown the ability to get to the hoop with ease. With Michael Redd sidelined, Milwaukee's go-to play down the stretch was Jennings running a high pick-and-roll and creating off of it. What the Bucks began doing was setting the pick very high, well beyond the three-point line. That suits Jennings' speed, allowing him to build up a head of steam while attacking off the dribble.
Perhaps Jennings' best skill is his ability to change pace, exploding quickly into the paint at times while also playing under control. At the risk of blaspheming, his ability to control the basketball on the dribble is reminiscent of Steve Nash. (According to Bethlehem Shoals of The Baseline, the rookie even aped Nash in the opener by making use of the space underneath and behind the basket to let things clear out.)
I was very impressed with the touch Jennings displayed on floaters in the lane. For an undersized player like Jennings, the floater (or pull-up) is critical to counter shot blockers waiting in the painted area. Milwaukee play-by-play broadcaster Jim Paschke pointed out that Jennings had been working hard on the shot during training camp, and both of his scores off of the high pick-and-roll came on floaters.
Jennings was much more likely to look for the pass than the shot off the high pick-and-roll, distributing it 12 of the 16 times Skiles called the play. He tended to shoot more frequently off the side pick-and-roll, taking a couple of jumpers fading away from the basket that should probably not be part of his regular arsenal. Despite taking 15 shots and handing out just three assists, Jennings seemed to have a good balance of knowing when to look for his shot and when to find teammates. Because he plays with his head up all the time, Jennings is always ready to deliver the basketball.
Defensively, Jennings' slight frame is an issue. At a listed 6'1", 169, he gave up significant size to Detroit counterpart Rodney Stuckey, who goes 6'5", 205. Jennings ended up defending both Stuckey and Ben Gordon with mixed effectiveness. The Pistons had a great deal of success off of pick-and-rolls, which wasn't entirely Jennings' fault. The Bucks' primary defensive strategy of having their big play back instead of coming out and showing gave the Pistons guards open midrange looks. However, Jennings could have done a better job of fighting through screens and struggled when Milwaukee switched the pick-and-roll, looking lost.
In general, Jennings appears better defending off the ball. His instincts and quick hands allowed him to come up with three steals, and he can pose a major threat to inattentive post players with his ability to dig down and rip the ball out. Jennings also rotated well to contest shots, which helped him force seven misses against five makes for which I marked him as responsible defensively.
Whether by his choice or at Skiles' request, Jennings is providing heavy on-ball pressure against his man. This can be effective in terms of wearing down the opposition and creating the odd turnover, but it leaves Jennings vulnerable to being beaten off the dribble and to fouls. He's been whistled for five fouls each of his first two games, and foul trouble put him on the bench when he was wreaking havoc against the Detroit defense during the third quarter.
Given his size, it's remarkable that Jennings came up with nine rebounds in his first NBA game. He was much less of a factor on the glass Saturday, pulling down two rebounds. For what it's worth, Jennings' rebounding was decent in Europe, but nothing special. Adding some strength over time will allow Jennings to battle in the paint on a more regular basis, and should help him defend players like Stuckey who may take him down to the post from time to time.
After just two games, it is clear that Jennings is a special talent, one well worth the gamble the Bucks made in taking him 10th overall. While they are very different players, I'd have to say I came away more impressed with Jennings than fellow rookie point guard Tyreke Evans (the subject of last week's Every Play Counts breakdown). For his age and experience, Jennings is surprisingly polished. He is not likely to maintain his current torrid pace as an efficient scorer and shooter, but he still might have a chance to challenge for Rookie of the Year. Most importantly, Jennings already appears to have brought hope to a Milwaukee team that has been an afterthought in recent years. Bucks fans haven't had a lot to cheer in recent years, but Jennings' arrival gives them a chance to dream big.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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