Brandon Jennings' Long Strange Trip
Some blips were minor, the kind every expatriate learns to abide. The rich food, the exotic chants shouted in the gym with an adjoining trailer concession stand. The lack of dryers. Jennings still laughs at how the Italians, such a civilized society, live blissfully without machines that hasten one's ability to wear fresh undershirts every day. And don't even get him started on the crazy drivers who turn the streets of Rome into death traps.
"Oh, everything was different," says Jennings, in a quiet moment after the horde of cameras and notebooks have departed. The afternoon went by in a whirl, beginning with a TV crew trailing him from his midtown hotel to Wednesday's NBA media meet-and-greets, where Jennings was peppered with questions about his season playing pro ball in Italy, his harsh (and now retracted) comments concerning Spanish guard Ricky Rubio, and the one subject that turns Jennings' perpetual smile into a sneer:
His plummeting draft stock.
There was a time when the 19-year-old Jennings was considered the No. 2 point guard prospect in Thursday's NBA Draft, trailing only Rubio. While Jennings has backed away from his claim that Rubio is overrated, he still insists he's the best available point guard in the 2009 class, a debatable assertion. People who study these things for a living say he is certainly a top three talent, but then they add words like "mystery" and "enigma" and "bad attitude" to his dossier, and nobody knows quite where Jennings will land. The Sacramento Kings, with the fourth pick, were once considered his likely home, but then Jennings skipped a couple of pre-draft camps, and once again people wondered what was going on his head. More than a few scouts and draftniks have Jennings projected to be selected anywhere from No. 7 on down.
"It's not the first time my choices have been questioned," says Jennings. "Everything I've decided to do in my life for the last year has been done with the idea that I'll be playing in the NBA. And now here I am. Now I'm almost there."
A year ago today, Jennings was the best high school point guard in the country, a sure-bet to crack the top five in this year's draft after polishing his skills in the requisite year of college. A 6-foot-2 playmaker at Compton Dominguez High and then Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy, Jennings committed to play at the University of Arizona but failed to meet academic standards. He thought about going the JUCO route, to satisfy the NBA's three-year-old rule that requires high school seniors wait a year before entering the draft. Then he heard Sonny Vaccaro's grand idea about prep stars spending the 12-month waiting period overseas, playing against professionals, for big bucks, and soon Jennings was reading Lonely Planet travel books and worrying about the value of the American dollar.
Jennings became the first American to skip college and play professionally in Europe since the NBA's age restriction rule was implemented. He signed with Lottomatica Roma, a top professional team, for $1.2 million, plus a $2 million endorsement deal with Under Armour. Surely a season spent banging against seasoned veterans would increase his own value back home. He'd have a few laughs, learn a new language, showcase his phenomenal speed and court savvy. His mother and brother joined him on the adventure, in case he yearned for a bit of SoCal savvy.
When Jennings left our shores for Europe he was a vibrant player known for creating shots out of nothing. As a senior, he averaged a dominating 32 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and almost 4 steals a game. In Italy, his practice time far exceeded his playing time. European style revolves around the entire team getting involved, rather than exploiting individual skills. Jennings felt as if he were playing in a different universe, an alien floating on the periphery of the game he once dominated. He was ordered to play defense, to take shots only if he was open. He was one of three Yanks on a roster that included five Italians, two Slovenians, a Spaniard and a Bulgarian. Some games, he was on the court for just a few minutes, an anonymous role player. He claimed the team treated him "like a little kid," and couldn't understand why the coach insisted on getting every player into the game. What was this, the YMCA?
Two-a-day practices drove him crazy. He yearned for the creative freedom on the courts back home, the respect he demanded and earned from men twice his age. He missed the food, his friends, the sane drivers in LA. Around Christmas, he seriously considered quitting. "It took such a toll on me mentally," he says. "I didn't like how I was being used. I thought I should be playing more. It just all kind of built up and got to me.
"But then I thought about how that would look, if I quit. I'm not a quitter. I wanted to prove everyone wrong."
More self-doubt came in March, when Jennings watched his peers back in the states playing in the NCAA Tournament. Their joy was transparent clear across the Atlantic. He questioned his choices, wondered if any NBA teams would even remember him. "It was tough," he says. "But I made a decision and I stuck with it. I like to think I matured as a man and as a player."
He played in 27 of 30 games for Lottomatica Roma, which went 20-10 and reached the Italian League semifinals. The ostensibly best point guard American high schools had to offer averaged 5.1 points and 2.1 assists.
There are those darn numbers, mocking him, possibly reducing his value in the draft. He went to Europe to polish his skills, to bide time until the moment he fantasized about finally materialized. He's imagined for years what it will feel like standing in the Madison Square Garden green room, as some team calls out his name and selects him in what he presumes should be the top five.
Will his dream prove true? Was his year living dangerously as an expat worth it? Jennings doesn't immediately answer, but then he nods his head and says, "It didn't break me, man. So yeah, no regrets."