Sudden Star

Jennings would go no worse than No. 2 in a reshuffled draft

Brandon Jennings, who scored 55 points against the Warriors on Nov. 14, makes his first regular season visit to The Palace on Friday.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
Brandon Jennings was such a high-profile player as a high school junior that ESPN showcased him in a nationally televised game three years ago. He was a blur even then, standing out for his quickness and flashy ballhandling against the usual star-studded cast and high Division I recruits at perennial prep power Oak Hill Academy.

The one thing you didn’t see him do much of was shoot from the perimeter. He was so quick, and got to the basket practically at will, he didn’t have to use it much. And that’s the reason, as much as anything, that Jennings – once considered likely to be a top-three pick – fell to No. 10 to Milwaukee in last June’s draft.

Jennings has turned the book on him sideways in his first month in the NBA, though, shooting a sizzling .476 from the 3-point arc. Consider that Reggie Miller, regarded as the greatest 3-point shooter ever, is a .395 career arc shooter, and Ben Gordon, one of the best this decade, came into this season shooting .416 from distance.

“He has really come on in that area,” John Kuester said after Thursday’s practice with the Bucks up next, Friday at The Palace. “I think (opponents) have been surprised.”

Jennings has burst onto the NBA 2009-10 season like a supernova, exploding for 55 points two weeks into his NBA career – scoring all 55 after a scoreless first quarter against Golden State on Nov. 14. He’s flashed quickness that calls Allen Iverson to mind, but Iverson never had 3-point range and has always been a spotty mid-range shooter.

Is it possible this kid can be Iverson with a jump shot? If the answer is yes, then Milwaukee’s surprising start – the Bucks are 9-8, though losers of five of their last six after enjoying a soft early schedule – could translate into something much bigger in the years down the road.

Milwaukee’s slump, not surprisingly, has coincided with something of a fall-to-Earth by Jennings. After averaging 25.2 points and shooting 48 percent overall – and a head-scratching 49 percent from the 3-point line – through Milwaukee’s first 11 games, when the Bucks were 8-3, Jennings has averaged 14.7 points and shot 30 percent over the last six games. The one thing that hasn’t been much affected? His 3-point accuracy, shooting at .444 from the arc over those last six.

But if he’s really closer to that guy he was in the first 11 games, or he builds off of that and actually gets better – which you’d reasonably expect a kid who exited his teens less than three months ago to do? Then Jennings could become that rare transformational player who lifts a franchise from the lottery to elite status, bypassing mediocrity in a few short seasons and avoiding the cycle that’s so hard to break – good enough to break even, but with little hope of landing the difference-making talent to rise much higher.

Eight other teams – Minnesota picked twice before Milwaukee’s turn – had the chance to get him, which has perhaps eight other GMs preparing answers for their owners as to how they missed on Jennings.

Indeed, if you redid the 2009 draft, Jennings almost certainly would now go no worse than No. 2. And, given his star and ticket-selling potential, the Clippers, still fighting for recognition while sharing a market (and an arena, no less) with the Kobe Bryant Lakers, might have been torn between Jennings and Blake Griffin, yet to play a game, with the No. 1 pick.

Do you suppose Memphis, which picked second, wishes it had Jennings now to go with Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol instead of Hasheem Thabeet, who’s made precious little impact?

Oklahoma City is happy with James Harden, and Russell Westbrook has given every indication he’ll be a very good or better point guard. But he’s also athletic enough and big enough to move to shooting guard, and a Jennings-Westbrook combination would have been a handful.

Sacramento, likewise, is delighted with Tyreke Evans, who’s played well enough to spark speculation the Kings will look to trade injured star Kevin Martin when he returns. But the Maloof brothers are desperate to get a new arena built and fan interest has fallen off dramatically in the past few years. Jennings would be at the center of Sacramento’s marketing campaign to get that new arena built and keep the Kings from potentially leaving town.

Minnesota picked fifth and sixth and took two point guards, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. Anyone doubt that right now GM David Kahn, architect of a 2-16 team, wouldn’t like to trade both of them for Jennings?

Golden State took Stephen Curry No. 7 and thinks he has a terrific future. But put Jennings in that Golden State offense and … whew! He might average 35.

The biggest blunder appears to be New York’s at No. 8. The Knicks, starved for talent of any kind but especially in need of a name to stick on the Madison Square Garden marquee, selected 6-foot-10 power forward Jordan Hill of Arizona. Hill has gotten into 10 games for a 4-15 team, averaging 3.8 points and 2.2 rebounds.

Toronto, picking ninth, went with Southern Cal shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who’s drawn mixed reviews for a team that’s gone 7-13 despite a major summer overhaul intended to impress Chris Bosh enough to keep the pending free agent from fleeing next summer. Even though the Raptors have a perfectly competent point guard, Jose Calderon, you have to believe Toronto’s chances of keeping Bosh – who many suspect would be more comfortable not shouldering the burden of being a franchise player – would be greatly enhanced with a star-quality point guard and media darling running the team.

Ah, well. The Pistons probably wish Jennings had been taken by any of those other teams to keep him out of their Central Division, where they’re faced with the prospect of defending him four times a year for however long the Bucks can keep him in their uniform.

  • John Kuester hasn’t said much about the status of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, often referring questions to media relations director Kevin Grigg, but he did offer this Thursday: “They’re getting closer. Tayshaun did some light work and Rip is really aggressively doing some things, but I’m not sure exactly what will happen for the Milwaukee game.”

  • I’ve had a number of fans ask me my thoughts on Ron Artest’s interview with The Sporting News in which he made several, um, interesting comments, including his claim that he often drank cognac at halftime when he played for the Bulls and his willingness to fight Ben Wallace on the court whenever they get together.

    Wallace had a classic comeback to that: “He says he wants to fight me? Y’all need to check if he’s still drinking.”

    I seriously doubt the drinking at halftime thing, as bizarre as Artest can be. Maybe he did it once or twice, but as a regular thing? That would get around. Teammates, opponents and coaches surely would smell alcohol seeping from the pores of a sweating man. An NBA locker room isn’t a very big place. How do you sneak drinks of cognac during halftime? He said he’d walk to a liquor store near the United Center to buy it. What? Nobody noticed him sneaking a brown bag into the arena?

  • One more Sporting News mention. The magazine put a panel together to choose the 50 best players in the NBA. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva checked in at 34 and 48 on the list. I’d have guessed Hamilton to be on the list and a little surprised to see Villanueva there. Not quite as surprised as seeing Shaquille O’Neal at 16, though, a spot he might have deserved three years ago.

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