Hawks rookie Jenkins to play role down stretch
ATLANTA — When Hawks rookie guard John Jenkins attended Station Camp High, scoring more than 40 points per game his senior season while becoming a Parade All-American, he often traveled to the Vanderbilt campus to play pickup games with the Commodores' players. The competition in his hometown of Hendersonville, Tenn., just wasn't enough; he needed more.
When he eventually committed to Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, the connections were already in place.
"Those guys brought me in," Jenkins said of his former teammates back in June during his pre-draft workouts.
The results of those friendships forged paid dividends from the outset: Jenkins, though slight of build at the time, played 23 minutes per game his freshman season, averaging in double figures and immediately become one of the NCAA's top outside shooters (48.3 percent). He continued on to help lead one of Vanderbilt's most successful three-year stints in school history.
Then came watching the NBA Draft with family members, seeing his name pop up as the Hawks' first-round selection, No. 23 overall. Then came NBA practices and games.
Then the D-League.
Needless to say, Jenkins' contributions and improvements as a player came in smaller increments at the professional level, playing just 21 minutes total in his first 19 games — divided up by a stint with the Bakersfield Jam, the Hawks' D-League affiliate, in early December. He played well (51 total points) and was recalled after just two games. And slowly but surely, he's earned more minutes and his coaches' and teammates' confidence.
"I made shots in college, but that's college," he said. "You have to prove yourself at this level and I've been trying to do that the whole year."
Jenkins was, given his recent string of success, atypically quiet Friday night in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks. He scored just four points on 2-of-4 shooting.
Just before the game, though, typically quiet in his off-court demeanor, Jenkins was being asked questions about becoming the first Hawks rookie since Josh Childress in 2005 to post back-to-back 20-point games. His development has been key for a backcourt missing Lou Williams, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, and, at times, Devin Harris, who has missed 23 games this season. Plus, when thrust into a mix that includes Kyle Korver (45.4 percent from 3-point range), Jenkins adds yet another strong shooter to the NBA's sixth-best outside shooting team.
"Who? John? The rookie?" point guard Jeff Teague joked. "He's playing great. He's having a really, really good stretch right now. Hopefully he can continue to shoot the ball well, we need him down the stretch … This is the first time (I've played with) two guys that can stretch the floor the way (Korver and Jenkins) can."
Another potential shooter spacing the floor can only make Teague's job that much easier; it's one more potential assist waiting to happen.
"I've certainly seen with John in the game, Jeff has done a good job in getting him involved, looking for him, running plays for him," coach Larry Drew said. "Our team has all the confidence in the world in John, particularly when he catches the ball and he's lacing it up. Everybody likes the way he plays. I think as we move forward with John we'll continue to get him involved with more and more things as far as what we do, because he's not only a shot-maker but he can take it off the dribble as well."
While Atlanta's fourth-year point guard said his main contribution to his rookie teammate's latest surge was a dose of confidence — "We just told him, 'Just score the basketball. That's what you do.'" Teague said — Jenkins recalls a different story.
"He tells me to run hard," Jenkins said," so I run hard to get the ball. … Whenever your point guard tells you to do something you do it."
Apparently, it's helped.
With two games remaining for the Eastern Conference's current No. 5 seed, there are only 96 minutes separating the Vandy product from his first playoff appearance. The road was not easy. Then again, how many rookies actually have it easy? It took some unforeseen injuries, long nights on the Hawks' bench and a dash of D-League humility (and dominance) for Jenkins to reach this point of his career, and if he can deliver the type of scoring efficiency he did in road games against San Antonio and Philadelphia recently, he might just create a significant niche for himself in Atlanta. Twenty-point games are nothing to scoff at this level.
But as his fellow rookie Mike Scott, who also came on strong during the Hawks' recent road trip, said, Jenkins is capable of shooting the ball even better — among other things. What, exactly?
"Pass me the ball more," Scott said laughing.