Scott Skiles Impressed With Brandon Jennings' Development

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By John Denton
Feb. 20, 2016

ORLANDO – Looking on from afar like a proud papa, Scott Skiles marveled at the personal maturation and the game growth of Brandon Jennings last season while the point guard played for the Detroit Pistons.

Once a shoot-first, ask-questions-later type who could pile up points in bunches and once poured in 55 in a 2009 game, Jennings reinvented himself by becoming an offense-orchestrating, playing-making point who made life easier for others last season.

It was last January and Jennings was being talked about as one of the NBA’s most dynamic point guards again – something that was a bit shocking considering that he was six years into his career. He went through a stretch for the Pistons where he not only scored at least 20 points in eight games and pumped in 37 against Indiana, but Jennings also had a six-week span where he handed out at least six assists in a game 20 times, capped by his career-best 21 assists in a defeat of the Magic on Jan. 21 of 2015.

Skiles, Jennings’ first NBA coach for 3 ½ seasons in Milwaukee from 2009-13, saw a player who was ``getting it’’ and someone who no longer had to be poked and prodded to ``play the right way’’ and bring focus to every possession. Sure, they occasionally butted heads when they were together before, but Skiles took great delight in seeing the player that Jennings had become last season.

``I really think he was playing the best basketball of his career,’’ said Skiles, happy for how Jennings had turned out some three years after the two last worked together in Milwaukee.

Then, in an instant, it was all taken away from Jennings on a seemingly innocuous play. Up on the opposing point guard while trying to deny and inbounds pass, Jennings received a light shove from Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight, causing him to rock back on his left leg. As he attempted to push back forward, Jennings looked like a vehicle that had dropped a transmission and his left leg immediately gave way.

As the game action continued on the other end, Jennings rolled around writhing in pain. One hand grasped the back of his white Under Armor sneaker and the other slapped the hardwood floor. As the crowd inside Milwaukee’s BMO Bradley Center grew quiet, Jennings could be heard screaming in agony.

``I don’t wish that injury on even my worst enemy,’’ Jennings said of the complete Achilles’ tendon tear that he suffered. ``It’s a long (rehabilitation) process and I’m still recovering from it. … I’m back now. People say I wouldn’t come back the way that I used to be or that I wouldn’t come back at all, but I’m just blessed to be playing again.’’

Little did Jennings know at the time, but the pain in his Achilles’ was just the start of a torturous 12 months for him. Not only did the snapped Achilles end Jennings’ stellar 2014-15 season, but it did quite a number on the direction of his career as well.

With Jennings out, Detroit ultimately traded for Reggie Jackson, who took over Jennings’ job, blossomed into a star and signed an $80 million free-agent deal with the Pistons. When he was finally well enough to play again – something that wasn’t possible until Dec. 29 of this season – Jennings returned as a lightly-used backup point guard for the first time in his career. Most of of his numbers – 6.8 points, 3.0 assists and 2.0 rebounds – were career-worsts.

Another potential turning point in his career came this past week when the Magic – a team now under the direction of Skiles – traded Tobias Harris to Detroit for Jennings and forward Ersan Ilyasova. While most midseason trades are unsettling for players, both Jennings and Ilyasova took comfort in knowing what to expect from their head coach after playing for him previously in Milwaukee.

When Jennings arrived in Orlando, he chuckled to himself when he heard Skiles barking out orders about defensive positioning, protecting the ball in traffic and swinging it around the perimeter to make the opposition work. And, not surprisingly, many of the Magic’s plays were the same ones that Jennings ran while pumping in those career-best 55 points against Golden State on Nov. 14, 2009, while being named first-team All-Rookie in 2010 and while averaging a career-best 19.1 points per game in 2011-12 – all accomplishments while playing for Skiles.

Jennings didn’t always know at the time – and didn’t particularly like it, either – but all of the fiery barking by Skiles helped him to become successful throughout his NBA career.

``I played with him for four years and he gave me the ball from the jump to start my career off. At that time, I didn’t always believe in a lot of the things that he was saying, but when he left that’s when it really kicked in for me,’’ Jennings said with a chuckle. ``That’s when I realized how important he was for me in terms of basketball. The way he approaches the game and holds guys accountable – I’ve never seen that before in the NBA and it was good for me.’’

Getting Jennings and Ilyasova was good for the Magic (24-29) in Friday’s thrilling 110-104 overtime defeat of the Dallas Mavericks. Jennings scored 18 points, hit four 3-pointers, handed out four assists and ran the point for his new team the entire OT period. Ilyasova, who has great chemistry with Jennings from playing together in Milwaukee, Detroit and now Orlando, also gave the Magic 16 points and five rebounds as they thrived in the tense moments of a close game – something that has been a troubling issue all season.

Orlando will be looking for the same sort of contributions tonight from its newcomers when it hosts the Indiana Pacers (29-25) at the Amway Center. Tipoff is just after 6 p.m. and the Magic feel that the addition of the two veterans give them vastly more firepower throughout the roster.

``We have a lot of different weapons on this roster now,’’ said forward Aaron Gordon, who had a career-best six steals on Friday – the most of any Magic player in a game this season. ``The more we mature, the more we grow together, the better we’re going to be. With a guy like Brandon, he plays free. He’s fearless and we need that.’’

Speaking of being fearless, Jennings said that when he practiced with the Magic for the first time on Thursday it was the first time on the basketball court in 13 months that he wasn’t thinking about the Achilles’ tendon tear that temporarily wrecked his career. He said much of the problem with an injury such as the one that he suffered was the mental hurdles that it presents while facing some of the best athletes in the world.

After missing most of this season because of rehabilitation on his left ankle and leg and playing only sparingly behind Jackson in Detroit, Jennings looked at the trade to Orlando as a boon for him for a couple of reasons. The familiarity with Skiles as the faith that the coach has in his – such as Friday’s assignment to play the entire overtime – means the world to him, he said. Also, he knows that he has the final 29 games of this regular season to try and push the Magic toward the playoffs and show the basketball world that he can still play this game at a high level following the nightmarish Achilles injury.

``Every game counts for me and for us,’’ said Jennings, who has averaged 16.0 points, 6.0 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals in his seven-year NBA career. ``I’ve had a whole year to rehab the injury and now these last (29) games are the most important of the season because we’re trying to make that push for the playoffs. I’m excited for this new opportunity and I’m coming here to try and do something big. I want to finish strong, prepare for the future and let fans around here know what this team has for next year, too.’’