Tough Enough

Jennings rising above taxing toll of first NBA season

By Truman Reed

Brandon Jennings
Jennings was the only player to start all of Milwaukee's first 74 games. Photo: Gary Dineen/NBAE

Before Brandon Jennings' first season in the National Basketball Association even began, many wondered how he would hold up over the course of a grueling 82 games - and maybe some playoff games on top of those.

Jennings, his coaches and his teammates were asked multiple times if, or when, the Milwaukee Bucks' 2009 first-round draft pick might run smack-dab into the dreaded rookie wall.

The concerns were legitimate ones.

A quick survey of current NBA rosters yielded just four players who weigh in below Jennings, who is listed at 169 pounds in the 2009-2010 Milwaukee Bucks Media Guide.

And a long line of rookies big and small have been victimized by the aforementioned wall.

Jennings was armed with the benefit of one year's experience playing professionally in Europe before he crossed the NBA threshold. And back before he made his American professional debut, his coach, Scott Skiles figured that experience would serve him well.

I don't think there's any question that that experience helped him," Skiles said. "He came out as, if not the best high school player in the country, one of the best in the country. And he went over there and had to eat a little bit of humble pie. He was playing in a pro league where they practice twice a day year-round when they don't play.

"And his default mechanism over there, when he didn't play very much or when things weren't going right, was to get back in the gym and work on his game. Those are good things -- things you're looking for."

Skiles knew Jennings would encounter turbulence during his first NBA go-round, no matter how successful his season became.

"So much of this is, when you're a young player in the NBA, how do you respond when you go out on a given night or in a given practice and get your butt handed to you? It's inevitable. It's going to happen," Skiles said. "The players in the league are that good. So the fact that he was able to kind of fight through that and never once called back talking about coming home was good. He got through it, and he had some good games while he was getting through it. That bodes well for him, of course."

Jennings took the NBA by storm during his first month in a Bucks uniform. He dropped 55 points on the Golden State Warriors in just his seventh game in the league. He set records. His jersey became a hot item.

Oak Hill Academy's latest prodigy eventually returned to the planet Earth, but thanks in large part to his influence at point guard, his team went into orbit and has stayed there. With nine games still left in their season, the Bucks had already clinched at least a .500 record - their first since 2003-04 -- and were closing in on securing their first playoff berth since 2005-06.

Following Milwaukee's rough-and-tumble 108-103 overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on March 28, Jennings was asked how he is holding up. His answer reflected his performance -- a team-high 29 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.

"I'm all right," Jennings said. "I was a little tired in the overtime and started to miss some of my shots, but it was more fatigue. My legs kind of went out on me, so I tried to be aggressive and take it to the basket more."

Skiles likes it when that happens.

"He was making a conscious effort of trying to penetrate on the pick-and-rolls and not just come off flat and throw the ball back," he said. "He had a big rebound there late, and obviously a big basket at the end of regulation.

"He'll normally, at the end of games, knock down all of his free throws so when he's up there you feel like he's automatic. He missed one, but his activity was big for us."

Jennings' teammates have been impressed at how Jennings has handled the rigors of his rookie season and the toughness he has displayed when facing bigger, stronger opponents almost every time he takes the court.

Center Andrew Bogut believes the 20-year-old point guard has somehow gotten a second wind recently.

"Yeah, he has," Bogut said. "He's figuring things out. It's a long season. He knows when he comes into the paint, he's going to get bumped around. He's done a good job of picking himself back up.

"It's important that he knows how to use his body, because he's a small, frail guy."

Forward Kurt Thomas said after the big win over Memphis that he likes how Jennings has responded down the homestretch of the Bucks drive for the playoffs.

"The young fella's been playing great," Thomas said. "We definitely need him to continue to put up numbers for us. He definitely was being aggressive tonight. Their big guys blocked his shot a couple of times, but he kept on being aggressive and attacking the basket. That's what we need from him. He got off to a great start tonight, and it was good to see that continue."

Fifteen years in the NBA have shown Thomas how important it is for a player of Jennings' size to not back down. But he stopped short of drawing comparisons between Jennings and players of similar stature.

"He definitely shows that he has a lot of heart," Thomas said. "You can't take that away from him. He's a competitor. I hate to compare him to any other player. I just like to see a player come into his own and make a name for himself.

"He's a tough kid, tough-minded. That's what we need if we're going to be successful finishing up this regular season and going on into the postseason."

The NBA announced last week that Jennings was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March. This is the fourth such honor for Jennings, who also received the award for October/November, December and January.

Jennings helped the Bucks go 11-4 record during March, averaging 14.1 points (first among Eastern Conference rookies for the month), 5.1 assists (second among Eastern Conference rookies) with a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (first among Eastern Conference rookies), 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

He had four games with 20 or more points during the month. Against Sacramento on March 19, Jennings sank a career-high and Bucks rookie record eight 3-pointers. During that contest, he broke Ray Allen's franchise rookie record (117) for 3-pointers and he began April with 132 3-pointers, which ties for 15th among all NBA players and ranks second rookies.

Jennings has helped the Bucks win 10+ games in consecutive and achieve three straight winning months for the first time since the 2000-01 campaign. 

By winning the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award for March, Jennings became the first Eastern Conference rookie to ever win the award four times in a season.
Through games of March, Jennings ranked first among rookies in assists (5.9), third in scoring (15.7), third in minutes (32.8) and third in steals (1.28 and was tied for 11th in the NBA in assists.

The Bucks are guaranteed to finish with a winning record for the first time the 2002-03 season and are closing in on their first playoff berth since the 2005-06 campaign.
Jennings was the only player to start all of Milwaukee's first 74 games.