ATLANTA – John Jenkins said every rookie thinks that the NBA will be just like college – that his college prowess will instantly translate into pro stardom.
Then they bump up against reality.
Jenkins, the Hawks’ first-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, has seen playing time hard to come by and that’s why the team sent him to the NBA Development League for two games earlier this week.
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The Hawks have a lot invested in Jenkins and want to see him succeed. After some mild shock at first, he took the assignment with a positive attitude and made the most of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea of it was easy.
“I kind of want to play more, but at the same time I’m behind a lot of veterans, so it’s a tough thing but it’s also a good thing,” Jenkins said. “I’m learning things from Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams, Devin Harris, DeShawn Stevenson — they all have good things I can learn from so I always like to watch them a lot.”
When Jenkins went to the Bakersfield Jam, he showed what the Hawks hope he will be capable of someday in the NBA. On Monday, he played 29 minutes, making 8-of-13 shots for 22 points, grabbing three rebounds and adding three assists and two steals in a 102-95 victory. The next day, he came back even stronger with 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting in 37 minutes with four rebounds, three assists and a steal. In the two games combined, he had only three turnovers.
Through the Hawks’ 15 games, Jenkins has played only 13 minutes the entire season, which can make it hard for a player to develop. The fact that they are 10-5 also is making it harder for him to get in the lineup – as the veterans in front of him are playing well. With all of the acquisitions the team made over the summer, they have a huge backlog at guard. Furthermore, his biggest skill is his shooting and in Korver and Morrow, the team has two players who rank in the top 10 among active players in the league in career three-point percentage.
In sports with developed minor leagues like baseball and hockey, players are often sent up and down and, psychologically, the process can be difficult to handle. That’s why the Hawks were proactive with Jenkins in their approach, even if it’s somewhat rarer in the NBA.
“The main thing is we wanted him to get some time playing,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “He had been practicing and doing all of his player development stuff, but he really needed to get up and down the floor. We sat him down and spoke to him and just explained it to him. He was on the same page with us about it….
“It wasn’t a matter of him feeling like he was being demoted or anything like that. Just told him we wanted to get him a couple of games under his belt where he could get up and down the floor and get into game-like situations and then we’ll get him back here. He went down there and played really well. It did him some good. I’m glad he did it.”
While it might not have been a demotion, sometimes it’s hard for a player not to feel that way. Jenkins said his first reaction was, “‘Man, I want to play in the NBA, but you got to be sent down,’” he said. But Drew gave him some things to work on, told him to do what he does best – score – and, fortunately, Jenkins also had a role model on the team. Fellow guard Lou Williams, now in his eighth season, was a second-round pick by Philadelphia in 2005 and only played in 30 games as a rookie. That season, he averaged 1.9 points per game – similar to Jenkins’ 1.5 average right now.
Williams wasn’t getting much playing time in ’04-’05 so he and his agent approached 76ers management about going to the D-League for a few games. They agreed.
“So I just went down and played some games, got some confidence,” Williams said. “Haven’t looked back ever since.”
Williams earned a lucrative free-agent contract from the Hawks over the summer and his 14.1 points rank third on the team. Williams, who said he then “retired his D-League jersey after that” stint, imparted some wisdom on Jenkins.
“Yeah, hopefully, it will be a similar situation for John,” he said. “I think John’s very talented. You know, when you’re coming from an environment where you’re a star player, as he was at Vanderbilt, then he comes into a situation where he’s basically starting over, any time you can get some on-court basketball action, I think it’s a positive experience for everybody.”
Hawks forward Anthony Tolliver, in his fourth season, spent a few months in each of his first two seasons in the D-League. He said it made him “hungrier.”
“You can’t take a night off because guys are just going to play super, super hard all the time and everybody’s trying to prove something,” Tolliver said of the D-League. “You’ve got to prove you’re a step ahead, you’re a little bit better.”
If players take their trip to the minor leagues constructively, it can make them mentally tougher. Tolliver said when he was playing well, he expected to be called up. But life doesn’t always work that way. Player moves are more often dictated by a team’s needs and injuries on the pro roster.
“If you’re down there and you’re playing really well and you think that you deserve to maybe get called up and you don’t, you have to be mentally prepared to continue to work and continue to wait for your opportunity,” Tolliver said. “Two or three times, my calls up to the NBA came when I wasn’t playing as well as I thought I could, so you just never know.
“…and then you have a couple of bad games and you’ve got to be ready to go so you just got to be ready. You’ve got to be ready for the opportunity and take advantage of it.”
Drew said that the Hawks have left their options open with Jenkins as far as sending him back to the D-League. This year’s second-round pick, forward Mike Scott, is still with Bakersfield but Drew said the team plans to recall him soon.
Jenkins, who hails from suburban Nashville, said he has enjoyed the proximity to home with his parents attending several home games already and friends visiting, as well. It also has helped that he has had others like Williams looking out for him.
“Before I was even going, he had told me he had been through a lot to get where he is now,” Jenkins said of Williams. “It’s been a blessing for him. It took a lot of hard work, so it’s definitely encouraging for me to hear.”