Jennings faces pivotal season with resolve
OCT 30, 2012 11:53a ET
Brandon Jennings doesn't often doubt himself. He is a creature of his own confidence. It's the reason he opted to become the first American high school basketball player to choose Europe over the college game. And the same reason he's on a list with Hall of Famers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor and Earl Monroe as one of the limited few to score 55 points as an NBA rookie — it's also why he had the gusto to take 34 shots in that game. Since he can remember, he's tried his best to set trends, not follow them.
But the truth about Jennings, when you dig a little deeper, is that doubt has made the young Milwaukee Bucks point guard who he is. It's in his bones, written into his past. Without doubt, Brandon Jennings didn't have a fighting chance of becoming Brandon Jennings.
So in the biggest season of his career, the year that could transform him into one of the league's elite point guards or lead him straight out of Milwaukee, Jennings is using doubt like gasoline. He has never been without his doubters, but something about this year is different. His teammates have voiced how important this season is for their point guard. Jennings calls it "the biggest of his career." He smiles when he says that, a wry grin that suggests he knows what's coming.
He knows his doubters are getting louder. Will he ever be elite? Why hasn't he been an All-Star yet? Can he and Monta Ellis actually work together?
For now, all Jennings can hear are the questions. Soon, everyone will have the answers about him and his team, he says. But will those answers come in time? Will Brandon Jennings ever be bigger than his doubts?
Jennings wasn't bigger than anyone when he first stepped onto the court at Rowley Park in Gardena, Calif. The court didn't look quite like it does now — Jennings renovated the place in 2011 with the help of Under Armour. Then, it was a haven of rusted playground equipment and cement, adorned with street art, which colored the walls next to the court where Jennings joined his older cousins to play basketball.
At 5 years old, Jennings was the youngest player in the park's 7-and-under rec league. But he was also the fastest — barely tall enough to dribble the basketball. His cousins were leery about his playing with them, so they gave him one rule: No crying. You cry, you're out.
"I knew then and there that if I wanted to be with the big boys, I can't sit around crying," Jennings says.
He liked the pressure. He liked being smaller than everyone else because it gave him a chance to prove people wrong. And he did so consistently. But it was a few years later that everything would change, where the pressure would multiply.
When Jennings' father committed suicide just a few years after his debut at Rowley Park, the young boy suddenly became the man of the house, a role he took very seriously. And it changed him on the court, even as a young boy. He started crafting his game after the NBA players he could most relate to — Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, players who confronted doubt and pressure head on every day. They embraced it, and so would he. At 12 years old, he decided basketball would be the best way to provide for his family.
The doubts drove him. Soon, his cousins refused to play with him anymore. His handles were too good. His trash talk was top-notch. He got inside of his opponents' heads.
Upon arriving at Dominguez High in Compton, he started at point guard on varsity and led players almost four years older than him. Soon, he outgrew the place, outgrew the doubts and transferred to Oak Hill Academy — a powerhouse basketball program in Virginia.
"There, every night you had to win," Jennings said. "If you didn't win or you didn't play for state or win any national championships, it was a failure. I just had that mentality from there, making sure I was always on my A-game."
As the team's starting point guard and eventually the No. 1 high school player in the nation, Jennings says that's where the doubts really began to mount. Folks said he couldn't play defense, that he was too small to make it in the NBA. At the top, everyone was chasing him.
Almost two years later, some thought he'd thrown it all away. For 20 minutes some nights, eight minutes another, Jennings was struggling on the court for Lottomatica Roma. It hadn't been what he expected, being the first prep star to choose Europe over college. He felt alone sometimes.
But Jennings wouldn't let the doubt set in. Stories across the ocean, back in the United States, eulogized Jennings' NBA hopes. They spoke of his slow start, his limited time on the court.
It was a dynamic path he had chosen for himself, and now he was feeling the consequences of change. An ESPN the Magazine story told of how he was kicked out of practice at one point, miffed at his coach's criticism. It was a beating, mentally and physically. But he turned the doubt into motivation, as he had so many other times — like when he lost his father, or came to Oak Hill.
"To be the first one to go from high school, everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, he'll be back. He won't be able to handle it,' " Jennings said. "And then, my biggest thing was, I have to prove everyone wrong. I wasn't playing a lot. But I kept working on my game.
"It was the first time I had been set back."
Today, Jennings won't reflect much on his regrets. He's not sure he'd change anything about the experience. But there's a chip on his shoulder now — you can hear it in his voice when he heatedly discusses those who didn't believe in him. Doubters propelled him into the 2009 NBA draft lottery, to his new home in Milwaukee and to another leadership role, laden with dissent.
"Are you the alpha male?" one reporter asked Jennings, surrounded by microphones during the Bucks' media day. His eyes widened at the reporter; he cracked an embarrassed grin and then settled for a second, trying his best to form an answer.
"I've been here for four years," Jennings said. He paused.
"I wouldn't say yes, and I wouldn't say no. I am a leader. I wouldn't call myself a vet yet, but if any of the young guys wanted any advice, I'd give it to them."
The right answer. But since Day 1 of his rookie season, this team's nucleus has been built around Jennings. That's just his personality; he needs that pressure.
He amends his answer later, admitting that he knows much of what the Bucks do starts with him.
"Coming in, I've never been a person to say, ‘This is my team' or this and that, but I felt it," Jennings said. I could already feel that it was. … But I kept that humbleness in me. I didn't want to really put it out there, but I knew every night, when we lost it was on me. … At the end of the day, everything is going to fall on my shoulders. I just have to be strong enough to take that."
Added general manager John Hammond: "I think from Day 1, that kid has been in a very difficult position here, and he kind of put himself in that difficult position, playing as well as he did early in his rookie year. Next thing you know, he kind of became the face of this organization. When he had his 55-point game, people started talking about the Milwaukee Bucks. … They started talking about ‘Fear the Deer,' and Brandon Jennings kind of kick-started that for us as a 19-year-old rookie. I think he's had a tremendous amount of pressure. You look at what he's been through for this team and what he's had to do for us on the floor, off the floor as more or less the face of this organization, I think he's handled it tremendously well."
For Jennings, that's certainly not enough. When he talks about expectations, his tone suggests he knows there's a long road ahead. But he's not devoid of an ego. He likes being the best — just like his idols before him, Bryant and Iverson, liked being the best. He's still particularly irritated by his All-Star snub last season, when his statistics were certainly good enough to be considered.
But when prompted about Jennings, his coach quickly points to his star's weaknesses. Bucks coach Scott Skiles is tough and honest and never one to take it easy on his players. He mentions how Jennings' defense hadn't taken a step forward last season — one reason the Bucks struggled as a whole on team defense.
His criticism isn't a reflection of what he thinks of Jennings. He simply knows Jennings can take it and that his young point guard still has a lot of growing to do.
"There are some guys — Shaq, Dwight Howard — that come into the league and are immediately impact All-Star-type players," Skiles said. "Then, there are other guys that it takes them a few years to understand, ‘I've got certain holes in my game that I've got to work on.' Brandon is a very good player, but having said that, he did not have a good year defensively last year. He knows it."
Brandon Jennings chases his own rebound at the baseline of the BMO Harris Bradley Center court, as sparse yet eager fans snap cell phone photos from behind him. It's October, just weeks away from the regular season. He picks up his last shot of shootaround and drills a smooth 3-pointer from the same baseline spot.
He doesn't talk to anyone the last five minutes before his introduction on the night of this Bucks preseason home opener — the first game in months at the Bradley Center. He looks like he's taking it all in, his eyes flashing across the court and the stands. It seems like he takes forever in between blinks.
This is his year. That's what everyone says. Heck, that's what he says. He admits to feeling the pressure; but without pressure, is Brandon Jennings really Brandon Jennings?
"Everybody has always been doubting me, since the Oak Hill days, since I went to Europe," Jennings said. "It's always this question mark of who Brandon Jennings really is and what is Brandon Jennings really about? My whole thing is just to prove everybody wrong. There's always more fuel to the fire."
But Brandon Jennings still has a lot to learn about himself, as well. He's still just 23. "At least now he can get into the casino," forward Drew Gooden jokes.
Jennings says he's still learning all the time. Since being joined in the Bucks' backcourt by veteran scorer Monta Ellis, Jennings has received Ellis' advice on dealing with critics — a style significantly different than Jennings' own.
"He's talking about he has to prove this, he has to prove that, and they come with questions about ‘Are you just a scorer?', people saying this," Ellis said. "Man, you got to block that out. You're going to hear that throughout your career. I've been hearing that all my life. Just know your common goal, know what you're after … and everything else is going to work itself out."
Ellis' statement begs a question: Is answering his doubters head-on really the best route for Jennings to achieve elite status? It may not matter at this point, as Jennings' entire life has been proof — at least in his mind — that doubt can fuel someone.
Just before the game begins, Jennings puts both of his hands down on the edge of the bench. He looks down at them and takes a deep breath. A big year could elevate him to a whole new NBA status. A big year could elevate his team to the playoffs. He had wanted this pressure all along.
Jennings powders his hands and the bottoms of his shoes and looks up at the crowd around him. He pauses for a second and turns to the court — the most important season of his career awaiting — not a single trace of doubt in his eyes.