Brandon Jennings‘s incomparable Cali-born swagger is part of the reason he’s in the NBA. When we’re finally able to measure player confidence, we’ll find that Jennings’s confidence in Jennings borders on the absurd and so far that’s been enough. Despite miserable shooting that’s followed him from Italy to Milwaukee to Detroit, he keeps finding work as a starter, but how long will it last under the no-nonsense regime of Stan Van Gundy? Just three games into the 2014-15 season and incumbent journeyman point guard/tight beard-line wearing D.J. Augustin is creeping into Jennings’s minutes like a spider nibbling away at his ink-covered skin in the night. And Brandon is not happy! Or is he?
Like point guards passing through an identity crisis-having team, these are the days of Stan Van Gundy’s life. And while I’m certain SVG has the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of each point guard narrowed to the granular details, what offers a guide to competition better than boxing’s tried and true Tale of the Tape format? Nothing, so let’s get to the tape and see who’s really the best fit for Detroit’s lead guard spot. To quote the great Liquid Swords, “you don’t understand my words, but you must choose one. So come boy, choose life or death:”
I remember the first and only time I stepped foot in the Bradley Center like it happened seven or eight years ago. It was a cold Milwaukee night in November and I was with a few college buddies making the trek from Iowa City up north. The police officers took jaywalking seriously and made some threats which we took seriously. Then we made it inside and my recollections get fuzzy. I remember the 23-year-old version of me being impressed by the dinginess of this NBA arena that seemed sepia-toned like I was watching the game through the lens of an old photo. The Kobe/Shaq Lakers beat the Bucks in what was a mostly forgettable game, but memories drift to the lower end of indifference … similar to how I felt when I sat down to write this preview.
The 2011-12 version of the Bucks are a most uninteresting collection of interesting individuals. Their owner is long-time Wisconsin Senator, Herb Kohl. I don’t know much about Kohl except a story I heard once from a friend who occasionally travels to DC for work. Kohl’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but piddles around the nation’s capital in a model of simplicity—a Ford Taurus. I realize there are plenty of thrifty millionaires, but given that Kohl owns an NBA team, this contrast found a way to stay stuck in my mind and I’ve always had an appreciation of Kohl since. (I hope the story’s true.)
Moving down the ladder a few rungs, we find Coach Scott Skiles who, from afar and second-hand accounts, appears to be possessed with a deep, unquenchable intensity. The kind of intensity that overrides any logic and convinces engage your teammate in physical battle … even if he’s 7’1”, 300+ pound Shaquille O’Neal and you’re 6’1”, 180lbs Scott Skiles. This temperament underlining a point guard’s skill set and vision is the primary genesis of the 2011-12 Bucks’ theories and strategies. I’ve always been curious about how the 47-year-old drill instructor of a coach gets along with his swag-heavy 22-year-old point guard, Brandon Jennings.
We know some of Jennings’s story: the preps to Euro-pros move, the 55-point game as a rookie, the streaking quickness and an Under Armour sponsorship that won’t quit. If you don’t have League Pass or NBA TV, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Jennings’s unorthodox (for a basketball player) workouts in commercials (Bosu planks and pushups, exercises to strengthen the core and improve balance, jumping and touching the ball against the backboard over and over, etc) more than you’ve actually seen him in a Bucks uniform. The workouts, like much of what Jennings does, are designed and promoted as new, fresh, ahead of the game which he’s always presented himself as: from the high-top fade at the McDonald’s All-American game to skipping college to make some money and play in Europe to the faux hawk to signing an endorsement deal with a non-basketball traditional shoe company to his gritty, sweat-drenched, highly marketed workouts—Brandon embraces the new. But his coach embodies the old; he was emblematic of the old even when he was a younger player—short shorts, receding hairline, Indiana roots. Having played the same position and the point guard being a natural extension of the coach makes this a fascinating relationship that happens to be part of the role dynamics of the NBA and pro sports; it’s just that stylistically, Jennings and Skiles couldn’t be much more of a study in contrasts.
Sticking with Jennings; we also know he’s capable of nuclear scoring outbursts like the 55 he droped … in his seventh game … as a rookie. No rookie since Earl the Pearl Monroe (aka, Black Jesus) scored 56 in 1968 has done better than Jennings. If his nickname was Black Jesus, what’s that make Jennings? In one 48-minute stretch, Jennings expanded the possibilities of his own personal stratosphere and simultaneously raised the expectations of the pro basketball public. That was 2009 and it’s his most definable moment and will be tough to overcome since we all only have one rookie season for each career we choose. It will always be a special marker of the Brandon Jennings narrative, but the progression of his career will determine its prominence.
The Bradley Center might be a big warehouse with some seats and a couple baskets, but Andrew Bogut’s raucous group of fans called Squad 6, the Fear the Deer campaign and now Stephen Jackson’s inclusion have filled the arena and its Euro-style fans with some fun and hopefully a few more wins. On the fun (or worrisome) side of things, Jackson’s a wild card and Bogut’s known for being outspoken and averse to biting his tongue. Jennings and Skiles have co-existed through two seasons, but Skiles has a way of wearing teams down with his intense approach. For Milwaukee beat reporters, there should at least be plenty of quality post-game quotes.
Among others, these are the first questions that come to mind when I think about the potential of this team:
Has Andrew Bogut’s elbow finally healed? The man shot 44% from the free throw line last year. Bucks fans can only hope this was an injury-related 44%.
Will Brandon Jennings’s video-documented workouts make him a better player? He claims the weight work is preceding a style change that will include more penetrating and less three-chucking (over two years, he’s shot 4.8 threes/game—bad enough for 15th most 3pa/game and the worst 3p% of any of the players who shot more than him).
Has Carlos Delfino recovered from his post-concussion symptoms from last season? We’ve seen Justin Morneau in baseball, Sidney Crosby in hockey, Delfino in the NBA and who can possibly count the number of NFL-related head injuries. It’s spooky to think about how little we knew about concussions 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
The more time I spend contemplating this Bucks team, the more I find myself being drawn into the complex players, relationships and talents that make up the group. I don’t know what to expect on the floor, but it hinges on a combination of the questions above and the chemistry that does or doesn’t develop in the locker room. I’m not quite ready to Fear the Deer, but I’ll proceed with necessary caution.