Brandon Jennings Revives the Bucks
MILWAUKEE -- Three guys in the stands have their shirts off and are jumping up and down at a Wisconsin sports event. One has their favorite player's number painted onto his chest and the other two are adorned with the initials of the player.
So what is this, a Green Bay Packers game and it's 25 degrees outside?
Nope. It's 72 degrees indoors, and it's a Milwaukee Bucks game.
The player is rookie sensation Brandon Jennings. In a matter of weeks, the point guard has made the Bucks relevant again.
"He's phenomenal as a rookie just stepping in and just bringing the excitement to the state of Wisconsin for basketball,'' said Greg Ermaginger, 18, the guy who had Jennings' No. 3 painted on his chest at a recent game at the Bradley Center while his buddies wore "B'' and "J.'' "There's been a lull in Bucks basketball the last couple of years. He's single-handedly brought the excitement back to the team.''
Fan Steve Gill, 37, puts it bluntly about what it used to be like for the Bucks, who haven't had a winning season since 2002-03 and haven't won a playoff series since 2001.
"This place had been a library,'' said Gall, 37, who was seated next to Ermaginger but was not bare-chested, instead wearing a Jennings jersey.
Gall said he tried to give away two tickets to Milwaukee's home opener and found no takers. But for a game last Wednesday against lowly New Jersey, he again tried to give away a pair, and Gall said "four people in seven minutes'' asked for them.
A 55-point game by a rookie will do that.
On Nov. 14, Jennings wowed Bucks fans with a double nickel against Golden State. That broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's team record of 51 for most points by a rookie set in Feb. 1970, was the most scored by any NBA rookie since Baltimore's Earl Monroe got 56 in Feb. 1968 and made Jennings, at 20 years and 52 days, the youngest NBA player to have a 50-point game.
"I played in the game when Kareem scored 51,'' said former Milwaukee star Jon McGlocklin, a Bucks television analyst who was behind the mike for Jennings' outburst. "This was even more excitement (with Jennings) because it's a 6-foot-1 guy doing it. Kareem was (7-2) and so smooth. But this was more spectacular. It's been explosive to this city.''
Through it all, Jennings has remained level headed. After a recent home game, he walked out of the locker room alone and across the court to leave.
There was no entourage in tow. A maintenance man yelled, "Way to go, rook.''
Jennings drives to games in a Ford Edge, which sells for about $30,000. The SUV can hold its own on the interstate but is a pauper's vehicle in an NBA parking lot.
"It's my first car,'' Jennings said. "It's something to get me from A to B. I don't need anything really flashy right now, especially with the snow coming in. I don't want to mess up my nice ride.''
It's been quite a ride so far for the left-handed Jennings, who has led the Bucks to a surprising 8-3 start despite star guard Michael Redd having missed the past nine games because of a knee injury and center Andrew Bogut having sat out the past two because of a lower leg problem. He's averaging 25.3 points, eighth in the NBA, and 5.5 assists while shooting 49.1 percent from three-point range.
Not bad for a guy who slid all the way to the No. 10 pick in the draft. And not bad for one who averaged a meager 5.5 points and 17.0 minutes last season for Lottomatica, a team in Rome.
That's Italy, not Georgia or New York.
After being the top high school player in the country for Oak Hill Academy (Va.) in 2007-08, Jennings signed with Arizona. But he had trouble with getting his SAT scores accepted in order to become eligible.
Jennings said he would have gone to Arizona had he not had the difficulties with his test scores. He said he didn't really try his first time taking the SAT, which he said resulted in his second and third attempts being "red-flagged,'' throwing his eligibility into question.
"If you'd never been away from home, I don't think it's a good idea to jump and leave and go somewhere far away, but I think it helped me out mentally having gone to Oak Hill and having been away from home for two years,'' said Jennings, who left Dominquez High School in his native Compton, Calif., following his sophomore year. "That made it easier for me to adjust going overseas.''
With the team electing to use more experienced players, Jennings surprisingly didn't play much for Lottomatica. That has prompted Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley to quip NBA general managers should sign the guys who were playing ahead of him.
"Like any player, things are going to be frustrating when things aren't going your way,'' Jennings said of his lack of minutes in Europe. "But I kept working on my game. And I think that kind of environment helped me a lot. I played with grown men every day, and they were physical. They'd grab and hold you and that kind of stuff.''
Jennings' less-than-breathtaking stats didn't help come draft night, with four point guards being taken ahead of him. Jennings also believes statements he made about being better than Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, who would go No. 5 to Minnesota before electing to stay overseas another two years, didn't help his cause.
"Some of the comments I said (before) the draft about Ricky Rubio, a lot of people were kind of like, 'I don't know about this kid. Maybe he's a little cocky, a little arrogant,''' Jennings said. "Basically, it was just some trash talking. But the timing wasn't right.''
But that's just the way Jennings is. He has plenty of confidence in his game.
All of the questions surrounding Jennings benefited the Bucks as he dropped into their laps. They certainly needed some good fortune after using the No. 8 pick in 2008 on forward Joe Alexander, who didn't even have his contract option for 2010-11 picked up.
"I think it would be dishonest to say we expected something like this,'' Milwaukee general manager John Hammond said of Jennings' quick NBA start while calling it "surreal'' watching his 55-point game. "We're very pleased at what he's done. Obviously, he's surpassed expectations. We hope we're not putting undue pressure on him, and that he can continue to grow.''
Jennings, who can slither to the hoop and hit the outside jumper with equal efficiency, has shown no signs of slippage. After the Golden State outburst, teams began to hone in on him even more. All he has done is average 24.8 points the past four games.
"I didn't think I would be ready this fast,'' Jennings admits. "It was me just putting in the extra time and working on my shot and coming in early every day and leaving late.''
Jennings sure didn't see the 55-point game coming, especially after he had a scoreless first period against the Warriors. He ended up 21-of-34 from the field, including 7-of-8 on three-pointers.
"It was just one of those nights when you're on and you just can't miss,'' Jennings said. "The most important thing is we won. It's a pretty good accomplishment.''
If Jennings needed any reminding about that, he received congratulatory text messages after the game from the likes of Steve Nash, Baron Davis, Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler.
Plenty of NBA players watched the feat. Nuggets All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups, who three days earlier had been outscored 32-19 by Jennings in a 108-102 Milwaukee win, said he was riveted to his television.
"That was impressive,'' Billups said. "I was like, 'Wow.' He reminds me of a young (Allen) Iverson. When A.I. was young and he was scoring all those points.''
Comparisons between the two have been making the rounds considering Iverson is 6-foot, 165 pounds and Jennings 169 pounds. Jennings is honored by the comparison since Iverson is his idol, but he believes they are different types of players, with Iverson having been more of a scorer and Jennings more a true point guard.
Charlotte coach Larry Brown, who coached Iverson with Philadelphia from 1997-2003, agrees with Jennings. What impresses Brown is how Jennings, despite his gaudy scoring numbers, remains a pass-first point guard.
"He's a gym rat,'' said Brown, who said he didn't realize Jennings was such a good shooter. "He loves to play. He's got a passion for the game... If he can get to 55 and still be unselfish, (that) puts (Milwaukee) in a good situation.''
Most observers believe Jennings' scoring average will dip once the Bucks get back both Redd, who returned Monday at San Antonio, and Bogut, due back in early December. But Redd, who has averaged more than 21 points in each of the previous six seasons, seems content to watch Jennings have some big scoring games, if that's what it takes.
"I just want to win, man,'' said Redd, who holds the Milwaukee single-game scoring record with 57 points but said he wouldn't have minded had Jennings broke it. "I don't need the 40-point and 30-point games. I've had those and lost so it's all about winning right now.
"It's been great seeing (Jennings) grow, and just seeing him develop and get better.''
Of course, Redd would like to see Jennings develop in another way.
"I tell him to get in the weight room every day,'' Redd said. "Your body goes through so much and right now, it's early in the season. But when January comes around, you don't want to be feeling those aches and pains in the morning.
"If you take care of your body and eat right and stay in the weight room, you'll last long in this league.''
Redd has lasted 10 years, but has seen mostly lean times since Milwaukee's 2001 run to the Eastern Conference finals. Guard Charlie Bell is in his fifth Bucks season, and has seen nothing before close to what Jennings has brought.
"He brings an excitement to the team and to the city of Milwaukee I don't think we've had for a long time,'' Bell said. "There's no doubt in my mind he can be Rookie of the Year.''
There's just one problem. Jennings, who is well ahead of Sacramento's Tyreke Evans' 18.2 average in the rookie scoring race, said that's not the type of hardware he's seeking.
"That's not what I'm playing for,'' Jennings said of trying to become the second Milwaukee player named Rookie of the Year following Abdul-Jabbar, easily the 1969-70 winner when he averaged 28.8 points. "I don't really care if I don't get it. Somebody else can have it. The main thing is just to get to the playoffs.''
Seems Jennings, despite his all of his confidence, is quite happy to let others talk about his recent play. It's not hard to find those willing to offer a sound bite.
"I'd be hard-pressed to find a rookie whose first 10 games were better than (Jennings'),'' said Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles, who first entered the NBA as a point guard in 1986. "I'm not aware of anybody in my 20-plus years in the league.''
There was a guy who had a pretty good NBA start shortly before Skiles' arrival. That would be Charlotte executive Michael Jordan, a hotshot rookie in 1984-85 who intently watched Jennings play last Friday in Milwaukee against his Bobcats while declining to offer a comment on the rookie.
But, just in case you're wondering, Jordan's top scoring game as a rookie was 49.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson.