On the surface, Brandon Jennings looks like your typical NBA rookie--about 20 years-old, rail-thin, and impossibly athletic. The same can be said for about 30 other kids in this year's draft class, and it's been said about hundreds of rookies to come before him. The difference? None of those people had nearly as many people invested in their success--or spectacular failure--and Brandon Jennings does. Because by skipping college to go play in Europe after failing to qualify for school, he might just have started a revolution.
And like most revolutions, this all started organically; between his struggles to qualify academically and the cartoonish levels of upheval at Arizona, Jennings was pretty much forced to look into options overseas. Once it became clear that he could make more than a million dollars over there, not to mention millions from endorsements, the decision became clear, and Jennings signed with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma in Italy. And just like that, much the same way Kevin Garnett declared for the NBA, Jennings unwittingly became an icon for a lifestyle that he'd never sought, but that'd found him.
Regardless of how it happened, though, Jennings became a litmus test--if he fared well, others would surely follow. If he disappeared, he'd be That Guy That Went To Europe and made the biggest mistake of his life. As I wrote a few weeks ago:
You truly couldn’t come up with a better foil for college basketball purists looking to tout the importance of a college education. He’s cocky, he’s loud, his entrance at the NBA Draft was unintentionally hilarious, he got into all kinds of trouble with social media, and when he "blazed a trail" and skipped college to go to Europe, he did so with undeniably mixed results (or at least statistics). He’s a ready-made cautionary tale for what happens when hubris goes unchecked...
He struggled in the weeks leading up to the draft. Or, his reputation struggled. His play--as in, what he actually did on the floor, in workouts--was marvelous. Davidson's Stephen Curry, who'd eventually go 7th to the Warriors, told this to Sporting News' Chris Littmann:
"[Jennings] plays different than anyone I've seen before… His creativity with the ball. He's always moving. Even without the ball, he's just always active on the floor. When we were doing 3-on-3 drills he'd do the Steve Nash dribble from one side of the court, underneath the basket, to the other and do a turn around. He's a great passer, so you've got to stay in front of him."
And yet, he was placed in a second tier come draft day, behind point guards like Ricky Rubio, Curry, and Jonny Flynn, and subject to all sorts of skepticism about maturity and attitude, even though he'd just successfully transitioned from being a superstar in Compton to being a role player in Rome. As if that doesn't require any maturity...
Had he not gone to Milwaukee with the 10th pick, there's a good chance he would have fallen all the way to number 17, to the Atlanta Hawks. As a disclaimer: this isn't meant as a conspiracy theory. But it's a fact that Jennings suffered because of his decision to go to Europe. He was at the epicenter of a lot of negative rhetoric, most of which came from folks that were invested in the college game, and not the development of individual players. People like Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas, for example, both of whom openly questioned Jennings' ability to lead a team, all while touting the virtues of seasoned college veterans like Flynn and Curry. That hurt his draft stock.
Nonetheless, his European experiment appears to have been a beneficial experience. Jennings got a chance to play and improve, not to mention a serious ego check. Although he didn't put up great numbers in Rome, his learnings from playing there enabled him to be among the league's readiest rookies, even though he never played one collegiate game.
That, clearly, will be food for thought for other youngsters who contemplate the same decision. In fact, it eventually could undermine the NBA's efforts to raise the age minimum from 19 to 20 years old, because it doesn't really help the league if its future stars are laboring in obscurity in Europe rather than building fans in the NCAA. If Jennings does end up as a surprise rookie of the year winner, the current trickle of prep stars across the Atlantic could quickly become a torrent.
So, naturally, we can now brace for the reaction:
And where Jennings might have once been considered a litmus test, he's now a Rorshach Test. Where some see an undisciplined kid that couldn't qualify for school and won't lead be able to lead a team, others see a shining example of a kid that admirably worked the system to his advantage, and is primed to capitalize now that he's made it to the NBA. It's all couched in cultural perspectives--are you more surprised Slam Magazine applauds his decision?--and theory about personal development--or that Dick Vitale thinks it's a colossal mistake for kids to go overseas?--that'd give any sane person a headache.
And it's all kind of stupid. Because the Jennings' story on its own is remarkable enough to have meaning that merits our attention. He's a tough kid from Compton that went to Rome for Christ's sake. He was the definition of selfish American basketball (think '06 Olympic Team) transposed on a European roster, and through his own dedication and cooperation with his coaches, he reformed and harnessed his abilities within a team full of foreigners.
Now, he's in the NBA living his dream, and averaging 21 ppg, 6 assists, and 5.5 rebounds. That's pretty f'ing impressive. As Michael Redd said of Jennings, after the Bucks beat the Pistons this weekend, "He sparked us tremendously in that third quarter, and we just rode him." And while it's still early, it's not crazy to think that Jennings' starring role is going to prompt even more intense debate over the next few months, and even years. It's inevitable, really. Even SB Nation's excellent D-League Blog, Ridiculous Upside, felt the need to wade into the waters with an opinion on Jennings.
And frankly, I don't really care one way or another about Jennings as a symbol for some basketball counter-culture. But the real meaning of Brandon Jennings transcends the inane, predictable arguments behind people like Slam Magazine and Jay Bilas, or even smart people like the guys at Ridiculous Upside. He's a kid whose journey is completely unique, and whose evolution doesn't need to be projected onto a whole sport to be noteworthy. There's no telling where he's going to go from here, but it'll be a hell of lot more interesting to watch that story being written than some warmed over debate about Europe.
And for what it's worth, while we're waiting to see how the chapters in his story unfold, it's a lot of fun to watch plays like this: