Yes, Brandon Jennings Is (Already!) Laughing Last
Well, then. Prior to the draft back in June, we wrote a post entitled "Will Brandon Jennings Laugh Last?", in which we strongly argued in favor of Jennings as a prospect - we ranked him as the no. 3 prospect in the 2009 draft class (trailing only two guys who have yet to play an NBA game, Blake Griffin and Ricky Rubio) at a time when his stock was plummeting. Jay Bilas ended up ranking Jennings as the 17th best prospect on draft night, and many believe Jennings would not have been selected until the 17-19 range if the Bucks had passed on him at 10.
As much as we believed in Jennings' long-term potential, we figured we'd be writing a post like this in March or April or a couple years down the road, not two freaking weeks into the young Buck's first NBA season.
Not even we thought that it would all come together so quickly, as Jennings is averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists (24.4 PER) in the wake of his mind-blowing 55-point performance in just the seventh game of his career, against the defenseless Warriors on Saturday night.
Because we consider point guard the toughest position to master in the NBA, we were expecting Jennings to start slow and come on later in the season. And while we thought Jennings had good shooting mechanics to build upon, we certainly weren't expecting him to hit 21-39 (.539) three-pointers out of the gate after his outside-shooting struggles in Europe - that's probably been the most surprising factor in his stunning debut. (His floaters in the lane appear to be vastly improved, as well.)
We can't lie - part of us relishes being able to write an "I told you so" post, after feeling like we were out on a relatively lonely limb back in June. (Note: folks should remember that Jonathan Givony of Draft Express was right on the mark on Jennings.) But that's not why we're writing this followup.
The point is not that we were right in our assessment of Brandon Jennings, and most NBA executives were wrong. We get some right, we get some wrong, so do the best of NBA scouts and executives, so does everyone. The point is why NBA executives were wrong on Jennings - there are some assumptions underlying the faulty evaluations on Jennings which need to change. We wrote in June that we "feel like Jennings is being questioned and moved down draft boards for a bunch of reasons completely unrelated to this question: Can he play?" It really did feel like evaluations of Jennings became more like a political topic than a basketball scouting report.
Here are a few of our thoughts on L'Affaire Jennings:
1. The Euroleague is a significantly better level of competition than U.S. college basketball. Period.
Anyone who has a rough sense of Euroleague basketball must be wondering why we even have to state something so obvious. Yet a misguided sense of college basketball exceptionalism was an undercurrent of all the incorrect Jennings evaluations.
Here's a quote from Billy Packer in a story on Yahoo! that's fairly representative of analysts who make their living off of the college game:
- “The guy didn’t go over there to become a better basketball player, I wouldn’t think. If you have an opportunity to go and play for Roy Williams at the University of North Carolina, or Tom Izzo [at Michigan State], you mean to tell me that going over to some European team is going to make you a better basketball player when you have an opportunity to be taught by guys that have coached multiple NBA players?”
A couple things that are striking about Jennings' NBA game to date are 1) his poise and 2) his ability to run the pick-and-roll. Then one needs to step back and remember that he is a not a rookie in the pro game. Jennings learned how to play a pro-style game in Italy, a pick-and-roll game, and did so against experienced, grown men in the prime of their careers, with an increasingly high talent level underlying things, as any Olympic or World Championship competition of the past decade has made crystal clear.
We wrote this in June, and believe it now more than ever:
- "I believe that in time it will be shown that playing in the Euroleague developed Jennings' game better than the NCAA game would have, and that it will be yet more proof that it is not necessary to play college basketball in order to develop into an elite player."
It's this statement, from an unnamed NBA GM in a story by Chad Ford, which still leaves our mouth agape every time we read it:
- "I'm not sure how you take a kid without a real body of work that high. I know this is a weak draft, but are we really taking kids who have struggled to produce in college or Europe in the lottery? I'm all for upside, but it's ridiculous. If Jennings can't get on the floor in Italy, how does he help my team in the next couple of years? How do you take him over some really talented college kids who have proven they can play? Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson, Steph Curry. Those guys are talented too and they have track records."
Here's the point we're trying to illustrate: it's not that the GM above is making a poor evaluation of Jennings, that happens. It's that the GM, in this quote, is betraying that he has no understanding of the larger picture of how international basketball works, which is inexcusable. And given the way that Jennings' stock dropped prior to the draft, it seems like this sentiment was the mainstream, rather than an aberration.
An NBA GM needed to be able to look at Jennings' European stats and understand that it was a much higher level of competition than NCAA ball. Check out Josh Childress' numbers for an example - he went from 12 ppg and 5 rpg on .571 FG% (.367 3PT%) in 30 mpg for Atlanta to 9 ppg and 5 rpg on .470 FG% (.158 3PT% with a shorter line) in 24 mpg in Euroleague play in his prime for Olympiakos. It's just a different style of play.
They also needed to understand that the style of play was not as conducive to Jennings' strengths as the current NBA game. One of the key reasons we rated Jennings so high was the difference in rules: the NBA interpretation of no contact allowed on the perimeter plus the defensive 3-second rule are both significant differences vs. how the game is called in Europe. In Euroleague games that we watched, we often saw Jennings get past his man, only to run into a mass of bigs clogging the painted area. Indeed, playing on a floor with more open space has really helped Jennings in the league.
Don't know too much more to say than to highly recommend the Euroleague games which are aired weekly on NBA TV or ESPN 360. We've been hooked ever since we got our first glimpse of Manu Ginobili, back in the 2002 Final Four. It's enjoyable not just to catch internationals before they hit the shores of the NBA, but also to see Americans establish their pro bonafides, as a guy like Will Bynum did at Maccabi Tel Aviv a couple years ago. Ricky Rubio is a hell of a fun watch with Barcelona, of course, and you can also catch guys who could be playing key NBA roles in the next few years, like Tiago Splitter or Nikola Pekovic.
2. Needing to see a player play in person in order to evaluate him is wildly overrated in 2009.
Is it better to see a player in person to scout him? Sure. There are things one can glean in regard to how a player carries himself, interacts with teammates and coaches, etc. in person which can't be seen on television or tape. One can gather further information about a player - as reporters Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony did regarding Jennings in Italy - by seeing practices and talking to coaches who work with him and to scouts on the ground there.
But, ultimately, is it necessary, in 2009, to see a player in person to evaluate him? Absolutely not.
The biggest crock regarding the botched evaluations of Jennings is the whole sense, voiced repeatedly, that decision-makers were not able to see Jennings in enough 5-on-5 competition. Here are some of the quotes over the last year:
- “But with [Jrue] Holiday, you can make the argument that because he played in full view of NBA decision makers, that there’s some value to that. That he’s more of a known commodity to the NBA than Jennings is. And while they may have questions about both prospects, they’ve seen him. Holiday was playing in full view, and Brandon Jennings was basically playing in blackout conditions.”
- “The decision makers, they don’t have the luxury of going to seven or eight games [in Europe] every year. The question is how much stock teams will put into workouts instead of a player’s body of work.”
- "Numerous teams in the lottery have pointed out to us that they do not feel comfortable with the amount of competitive five on five action they’ve seen Jennings partake in, and that they would have a difficult time selecting him based on the body of work he’s put together up until this point."
- "We all came to see whether this kid can really play. I'd heard the hype, watched the video and heard various opinions from my scouts. I wanted to see how he stacked up against other top kids his age. Then he doesn't show. He sure isn't making this easy on us. You want to like the kid, but he ain't giving you a lot to go on."
There were multiple Roma games available on NBA TV, more available on ESPN 360, and all Euroleague games were available via the Euroleague.TV online package. Furthermore, Synergy Sports offers breakdowns of European games, so we'd imagine that any GM could easily call up a substantial percentage of Jennings' minutes in Rome, itemized by possession, to his office computer right now.
Go back and watch Lottomatica Roma's game vs. Tau Ceramica - one of the top teams in Europe, closer to an NBA team than an NCAA team, featuring top internationals like Tiago Splitter, Pablo Prigioni and Igor Rakocevic - from January, and the promise in Jennings' game that we're seeing today is all right there.
Sorry, but if you can't make a judgment about whether a guy can play based on video, enhanced by the tools from Synergy Sports, in 2009, then you don't deserve to be working in a team personnel department.
Seeing a player in person is better, but it is not necessary. The idea that it is necessary is frankly condescending, to suggest that there's some sort of magic which insiders with access have that the common fan simply can't grasp.
The point is not that we were right, and they were wrong. It's that some guy in Seattle who records a few games on his DVR *can* be right. There's no way, just a few years ago, that anyone in the U.S. would have been able to see a glimpse of Jennings in Rome. Then, seeing him in person mattered, because that was the only real access available. Not now.
3. Amazingly, the Knicks probably would have been better off with Isiah making the selection on draft night.
As much as Jennings never should have slipped to no. 10, it at least appears that several of the guys taken above him can play.
The first exception is that it sure looks like the pick of Hasheem Thabeet at no. 2 was the worst pick of the 2009 draft, but that's what happens when the owner makes the pick, and Michael Heisley and his disastrous franchise are basically irredeemable at this point.
What's become increasingly apparent is that the colossally bad pick of the night was the Knicks' selection of Jordan Hill ahead of Jennings.
The Brandon Jennings we've seen in Milwaukee would have been the perfect guy to run Mike D'Antoni's show in New York. He would have been the perfect guy to bring some excitement and energy back into Madison Square Garden. Did you see the crowd in Milwaukee on Monday night? That place has been a mausoleum the last few years, but it was rocking like a college crowd in the first game following Young Money's double-nickel.
And dare we say it: Brandon Jennings would have been the perfect player to create an atmosphere in 2009-10 - on the court, in the arena, in the city - which would make the Knicks more enticing to LeBron James.
Why didn't Knicks president of basketball operations Donnie Walsh select Jennings?:
- "I didn't have a good feel for his game. I went to Europe, Treviso, to see him at a draft camp and he didn't show. We brought him in here and the situation is not running up and down, 5 on 5. So going into the draft, I didn't get a good feeling."
Walsh has also passed the buck (no pun intended!) by saying that his scouts should have argued for Jennings harder.
Alan Hahn of Newsday is a very good reporter, but we'd have to disagree with this statement in a recent story:
- "Walsh explained last week that he "didn't have a good feel" for Jennings' game, which is somewhat understandable because of how little that could be judged from Jennings' limited minutes in Italy last season."
That's where we get back to our statement in bold above. For everything Isiah did to devastate the franchise, he has always drafted well. His nose for potential has generally been ahead of the curve, such as when he stole Tracy McGrady with the 9th pick in 1997, when guys were still wary of high-schoolers. Our gut feeling is that Isiah would have understood Jennings and his game, and would have taken him at 8. Isn't it crazy: the Knicks really probably would have been better off turning their draft over to Isiah! (As long as he wasn't allowed to make any trades, of course!)
We're working our way through Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, which is a rollicking good read. One of the fun sections asks "What if?" questions from throughout NBA history, such as "What if the Hawks had taken Chris Paul in the 2005 draft?", and then speculates on how things might have played out had a different course been taken.
If it turns out that LeBron James passes on the Knicks next summer, and part of his reasoning is that there's not enough promise and hope on the team's roster, don't be surprised if the biggest new "What if?" question added to a future edition of the book is "What if the New York Knicks had picked Brandon Jennings in the 2009 draft?"