Bucking Down Expectations
By Jon Pastuszek
Sat, 11/28/2009 - 9:50pm
This Thanksgiving season, I’m thankful for family, friends, health, Brandon Jennings, Raekwon’s newest album, NBA League Pass Broadband and Brandon Jennings.
And oh, did I mention Brandon Jennings?
I, like many NBA hoop heads, have thoroughly enjoyed planning nighttime couch sessions around the Young Buck. Jennings, who sold me rather early on with his opening night 17-9-9, is simply exquisite. The most amazing thing about his 55 point explosion was that it came within the offense. Even while he was clearly scorching hot, he was still initiating sets and looking for teammates. Hardly anything was forced -- hardly anything with Jennings is forced -- except for the decision to flip over to the Milwaukee game whenever they're on League Pass.
Two weeks ago, we witnessed the fastest rookie in League history to get to 55 points, a huge deal.
But, yesterday, we witnessed an even bigger deal, the completion of the fastest media turnaround in League history.
Think about this: On draft day, ESPN and other big time networks bashed Jennings' decision to go to Europe. They slaughtered him for being unproven, unknown, unskilled and immature. The NCAA was good, Europe was bad, and Jennings' stay in Italy was an irrevocable mistake that was going to prevent him from a successful NBA career.
Four short months later, the Bucks, led by their young hyped up superstar, were moved up to a nationally televised primetime slot on the very same network that slammed him. Apparently, it's OK to do an unapologetic 180, as long as that 180 is good for ratings.
The Jennings hype machine is in full gear. Rightfully so, I say. He's the best rookie of his class, and has the potential to be one of the best point guards in the NBA.
However, as last night dismantling at the hands of the Thunder confirmed, BJ is not quite yet AI, MJ, LBJ, GOAT or whatever other abbreviations you can come up with. He's played poorly in his last three games, and while I don't like messing with dude's shine, I think he will find it difficult to live up to the incredible hype that currently surrounds him.
Besides being a rookie, here are three reasons why the League’s most popular No. 3 on the scene will find it difficult to immediately remedy his three-game slump:
Any way you slice it, the Bucks’ fast start to the season was impressive. Their 7-3 start was the franchises’ best start since 2001, and it was Scott Skiles’ best ten game stretch to start a season while on an Eastern Conference bench (his 00-01 Suns squad started the year 9-1).
But, taking a closer look at their early schedule reveals that though the Bucks fulfilled their Skiles destiny, by defending and rebounding like a top five team, their good record was in large part due to an easy schedule.
To start, seven of the Bucks' first ten games were at home in the Bradley Center. Only one team, the Heat, had more home games, eight, to start the season. The Lakers, Clippers and Pacers also had seven.
At home, the Bucks went 6-1, there only loss a close game in OT against the Mavericks. So, regardless of who they played, they accomplished what any aspiring Playoff team is supposed to do: protect home court.
But, it's tough to overlook who those wins came against. Of those six wins, only one came against a team with a winning record, the Nuggets. The other five came against the Nets, Knicks, Bobcats, Warriors and Pistons, teams who are either awful altogether or awful on the road.
And the three games on the road? The only win came against the Timberwolves, who if it weren't for Damien Wilkins awkward game-winner on opening night, would be engaged in a historic race with the Nets for season starting futility.
Those who felt that the Bucks’ hot start was based on their soft schedule were validated over the past week, as the Bucks went 1-3 on their four game Southwestern sojourn. Jennings in particular struggled on the trip, averaging 16 points on 32% shooting, and a 1.4:1 turnover-assist ratio, numbers that were consistent with his previous road outputs.
With BJ’s incredible ability, the recent struggles could be attributed to rookie inconsistency, something that every first year player fights with. But, looking at what’s ahead for the Bucks, its extremely possible that Jennings’ lull could continue into December.
Next month, the Bucks's schedule gets tougher. Much tougher, actually. Over the course of the month, they'll play half of their 14 games on the road, which include tough matchups against the Celtics, Cavaliers, Bobcats and Magic. It won’t be much easier when they’re at home either – after a two-game homestand that starts tonight against the Magic, the Bucks will welcome some of the NBA’s elite: the Cavaliers, Trail Blazers, Lakers and Spurs will all make a trip north within a 20 day period. The Raptors, with crazy matchups all over the floor, also will come into town as well.
The next month will tell us a lot about the Bucks and its young star, Jennings. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Jennings continue to put up good numbers. But, based on the limited sample of games we have, it’s reasonable to predict that the team’s record and the player’s statistics will come back down to Earth, and stay down there for a while.
When Michael Redd surgically repaired knee flared up in the second game of the season, whatever hope that emanated towards the Bucks quickly disappeared. The Bucks, one game into the season, were completely written off.
Redd’s absence, however, underlining just how wrong everyone has been on the Bucks so far, had no negative effect on the team’s record. Jennings assumed the role of scorer in the backcourt, and the team never missed a beat.
Even the most casual Bucks observer knows, Redd is only half of the team’s injury-prone tandem. Andrew Bogut, who also misses games every year, strained a ligament in his leg and has missed the last five games. He is expected to miss at least another week.
Unlike Redd, Bogut’s massive contributions up front for both team and point-guard cannot be replaced. Bogut’s post-ups take pressure of Jennings to facilitate everything, and give the Bucks good inside-out balance.
Besides scoring on the block, Bogut had also been instrumental in Jennings' success before his injury. Bogut, who has always been a good pick setter, had been Jennings’ most trusted pick-and-roll partner. His soft hands and ambidextrousness around the rim created a tough choice for opposing defenses: Stay with Jennings and wait for him to find the streaking Bogut, or sag off to protect the paint and look on helplessly while Jennings drains easy pull-up jumpers.
With Bogut out of the lineup for extended time, Jennings no longer has a legitimate offensive threat to free him up via pick-and-roll. Neither Dan Gadzuric, Hakim Warrick, Kurt Thomas and Ersan Illyasova, though useful in certain areas, are as diversely talented on the offensive end as the big Aussie. As we’ve seen in the past four games, without the steady Bogut in the lineup, defenses are focusing all their attention on Jennings, contesting every shot in every area of the floor.
There’s also another side to this – the defensive side. When the Bucks are without Bogut, they are without a viable defensive presence down low to contest shots at the rim. Last night, the bigger, more physical Russell Westbrook drove it right at the rookie the whole night, en route to 20 points. It was a gameplan that was drawn from the Spurs and Hornets, who also attacked Jennings with Tony Parker and Darren Collison the nights before. The intent is to wear out the wiry Jennings on the defensive end, in hope that his offensive suffers. The strategy is working, and Jennings can expect opposing matchups to attack him from the start.
It’s not rocket science that Jennings’ success has largely been tied to Bogut, and it’s safe to assume that until the center is healthy again, Jennings will have a tough time on both ends of the floor.
The “Other” Lefty
Chemistry. Mercifully, it was a subject I somehow managed to sidestep on several occasions in both high-school and college. In the scientific labratory, it's something that I'll never understand.
But, on a basketball court, chemistry is something that fascinates me more than any other aspect of the game. The mixing and matching of talent concoctions, unlike its scientific counterpart, is inexact, which perhaps makes it so interesting. Allen Iverson doesn't go with Richard Hamilton. Eddy Curry mixed with Zach Randolph is a disgusting, combustible mess. Kobe Bryant and Kwame Brown are ineffective, but when you swap Brown for Pau Gasol, you get the recipe for a championship.
On paper, Jennings and Redd look great. (It also sounds great too, almost like it could be a crime show on CBS.) First, there’s the tasty idea of an all-lefty backcourt, a thought that makes my secretly lefty sentimental side tingle with excitement (why do the lefties look so pretty when they shoot it?) Then, there’s the potential for offensive devastation – two scorers, Jennings the naturally gifted one, Redd the self-made one, potentially breaking down the notoriously stubborn, defensive-minded Skiles to his core, forcing him to recreate the Bucks into an offensively free minded squad.
But, then my natural right-handed mindset sets in, and I am precluded from continuing any Jennings-Redd optimism that exists.
It’s completely possible that I’m forgetting one, but I cannot remember any effective NBA all-lefty backcourt. As ESPN’s top left-handed reporter, Marc Stein, illuminated for us recently, only 6.9% of the NBA’s current player population is left-handed. Throughout the history of the league, I would guess that percentage has remained pretty consistent. So, one could argue, that there hasn’t been an effective all-lefty backcourt because there hasn’t been enough lefties to make it happen. Thus, perhaps I should take a more “wait and see” approach.
But, my bachelor's in Asian Studies remains influential in my thinking. The yin and yang – balance – rules my philosophy on many things, including basketball. Drive and kick, strong side-weak side, inside-outside, pass and move away… all of these things represent the constant balance needed in a sport that demands individuals to blend their talents together to make a collectively inspired team.
So, naturally, I feel that two lefts don’t make a right. Furthermore, I’m not sold – left handed or not – that Redd will be able to operate effectively alongside Jennings. Redd is a scorer, a player who must have the ball in his hands to be effective. Whether he can adapt to Jennings is a mystery at this point, but I'll have my doubts in the meantime.
I’ll continue to watch Jennings, the most intriguing rookie to come out since LeBron James, but it will be with tempered expectations. If we've learned anything from this experience, it's to not believe everything the media machine forces down our throat 24 hours a day.
We were way down on him, now we're way up. And so, I stress, balance, even when considering a super talent like Brandon Jennings, is essential.
Jon Pastuszek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org