As soon as Brandon Jennings opted to become the first American high school basketball player to skip college for pro ball in Europe, red flags went up all over the NBA. The point guard had taken the high school basketball scene by storm, winning every major award a prep player can fit on his mantel. But when he opted out of going to school at the University of Arizona — where he had committed — for a professional contract in Italy, Jennings became a risk.
He was labeled as a prospect with “upside” — a word you’ll hear plenty this year and likely be annoyed by before the June 28 NBA Draft. But to some, “upside” simply meant an excuse for his Italian numbers, which weren’t quite jaw-dropping. He averaged only 5.5 points and 2.2 assists per game, shooting 35 percent from the field, in his season with Lottomatica Virtus Roma.
Four point guards had been drafted before Jennings in 2009, including another once known purely for his potential — Spanish guard Ricky Rubio, now with the Timberwolves — before the Milwaukee Bucks took a chance on Jennings’ “upside” with the 10th overall pick in the draft.
It’s a dangerous yet often rewarding strategy to roll the dice on potential. For two seasons while Rubio struggled in Europe, Minnesota’s decision to draft him looked like a huge mistake. Now, the Timberwolves have one of the best young point guards in the league.
The same can be said for the Bucks, who hit it big with their preps-to-Europe import when Jennings destroyed those Italian numbers in his rookie season and every season since in Milwaukee. He’s now one of the Bucks’ key pieces, comprising half of one of the NBA’s best backcourts.
But when it comes to drafting for potential, Jennings might be the Bucks’ only legitimate example of an upside-pick-turned-right. They have, by all accounts, struggled with their draft night dice-rolling.
Since 2002, the Bucks have drafted just two players who were established college stars and seemingly can’t-miss products out of college — point guard T.J. Ford in 2003 and Andrew Bogut (with the No. 1 pick) in 2005. It’s safe to say that if injuries hadn’t derailed both players’ careers, they would have been closer to booms than busts.
But Milwaukee has spent plenty of time in that bust conversation, and in all of those situations, the team put its hope in potential. Guys like 2008’s Joe Alexander (a workout warrior at the draft combine) and 2002’s Marcus Haislip (who had a limited offensive skill set yet arrived with the “upside” label) were drafted based on potential and flamed out rather spectacularly in the NBA. Others, like 2007’s Yi Jianlian and 2010’s Larry Sanders, have yet to reach any meaningful level of their potential.
So the question remains: How often do you go back to the “upside” well?
Before the draft, which is two weeks from now, that should be the No. 1 question on the minds of those in the Bucks’ war room. Picking at No. 12, Milwaukee is in upside territory again.
Illinois center Meyers Leonard and Baylor forward Perry Jones III seem to be the best examples of what could be. Both are supremely gifted athletes who, in a best-case scenario, could end up as All-Stars in the NBA. Leonard, especially, seems to be shooting up draft boards since his workouts have displayed his better traits (including a ridiculous 7-foot-3 wingspan).
But Leonard played just one productive season in Champaign, and even then his toughness was questioned. He disappeared in some games and doesn’t quite know how to demand the ball like a dominant big man should. Jones is similar in the sense that his motor and motivation consistently have been questioned, and for good reason. Either one could become the steal of the draft. Either one could also become Marcus Haislip or Joe Alexander 2.0.
It’s all a part of the gamble inherent with grasping for upside. But when drafting in the middle of the first round, where there are very few established guys expected to become superstars (and arguably none in this draft), you can argue that gamble is one worth taking, even if you haven’t hit on potential often in the past.
The argument is especially relevant when, like the Bucks, you’re not quite bad enough to pick up superstars at the top of the draft but you’re not quite good enough to make a splash in the playoffs. More established players with less upside – such as North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger — could very well just mean more of the same midlevel results on the court. And if there’s one thing Milwaukee can’t afford, it’s sticking to the status quo.
The Bucks’ draft plans likely include a big man, but for now, that’s all we know. And until we find out more, there’s just one question Milwaukee general manager John Hammond should be asking himself: Are you feeling lucky?