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November 19, 2009

The Brandon Jennings Experience

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 8:53 pm

Brandon Jennings‘ 55-point outing last Saturday left in its wake a lot of gushing columns, my own included, but also a handful of dissenting viewpoints. I suppose that’s to be expected in the modern media world, where opinions are commodities; someone has to take the contrasting position. There’s a semi-valid point that we’re getting caught up in what Jennings is doing and not taking a careful, nuanced look at his game and its flaws (most notably a turnover rate that is on the high side, though committing a lot of turnovers is not always a bad thing for a young player).

I take a little more exception to the argument that Jennings only did it against the Warriors. If it was that easy, opponents would be dropping 55 on Golden State every night, y’know? There’s only so much air that can be taken out of putting up 50-plus in your eighth career game. The critiques of Don Nelson‘s gameplan seem to miss the crucial point that there is no way to defend a quicksilver point guard hitting with deadeye accuracy from beyond the arc short of keeping the ball out of hands and leaving the remainder of your defense vulnerable.

In the bigger picture, Bethlehem Shoals nails the way I feel about Jennings in a brilliant piece on FreeDarko. Naturally, I lean much more toward the analyst end of the spectrum than Shoals, but like him I find that what Jennings has done early in his career leads me back to the reason I became a fan in the first place. I remember talking about this once with another writer, and surprising him with my answer that I fell in love with basketball because of its visceral nature, the emotions, and the connection between a crowd and the players that cannot be replicated in much larger baseball and football stadiums. I know that doesn’t always come across in my writing, but I hope the thoroughness of my work is a testament to my passion. (As discussed by Kelly Dwyer on the latest Disciples of Clyde podcast.)

I don’t think Shoals and I are alone, which was actually part of the fun of Saturday night. It was the first transcendent individual performance of the Twitter era, and a virtual community was created as NBA scribes and fans tried together to make sense of what they were seeing. There’s something pure and child-like in that sense of wonder and anticipation, and I’m certainly not going to apologize for it.

I do believe that it is important and fair to paint an accurate picture of a player’s abilities, in that there is often a tendency to hype players up only to personalize their inability to meet those expectations. We attribute the incongruity between expectation and reality not to our own shortcomings as analysts, but to some failing of the athlete. This is most common at the team level, where fans will make a youngster out to be their savior–despite evidence to the contrary–only to turn on them. However, Chuck Klosterman devoted an entire chapter of his latest book, Eating the Dinosaur, to Ralph Sampson, who was victimized by this exact conundrum on a larger scale.

I’d be worried if that’s what I thought was happening here. Maybe in the long run it will prove the case. With the exception of those who want to make Jennings the final word and not an anecdote on the debate over the one-and-done rule, I don’t see it. Since the expectations, especially in the short term, were relatively modest for Jennings entering his rookie season, there’s a sense of trying to figure out exactly what to make of his early dominance. I especially get that from Bucks fans, who have been hammered with years of disappointment and mediocrity (see Frank Madden‘s day-after post on BrewHoop in particular).

So let’s be careful not to let ourselves with carried away with expectations for Jennings, but let’s also enjoy what we’re seeing. Isn’t that the point of following basketball?

IN RELATED: I’d also respectfully ask we lay off poor Jordan Hill. If you want to criticize Donnie Walsh, that’s fine. While The Painted Area’s M. Haubs raises some excellent points about the hypocrisy of GMs’ concerns about Jennings, I do tend to think the fact that Jennings was passed over nine times (albeit for better talents than Hill) and might have slipped much further had the Bucks not selected him is a defense for Walsh. If we can’t compare GMs to each other, what is the standard? But while Walsh made his choice and will have to own up to it the remainder of Jennings’ career, Hill did nothing to put himself in this position. His career should be judged a success or a failure on its own merits, and not because of where he happened to go in the draft.

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