Brandon Jennings, assists and his fit in the Bucks offense

After Brandon Jennings’s comments regarding the Bucks offense not running through him the way it did last season, many pointed to Jennings low assist totals and high volume of shots as proof that the Bucks offense still runs through Jennings.  I looked up the numbers, saw a team leader in scoring and a guy second in usage rate and thought, “is he crazy?”  But it’s worth digging a little deeper to see just what kind of shots Jennings is getting and how they come within the Bucks offense and what ever happened to that 10 assists per game proclamation.

When an offense is running through a point guard, that generally means the point guard is operating as the ball handler in a pick and roll scenario or is penetrating a defense through isolation and making decisions after getting past the first defender.  The percentage of Jennings possessions in which he’s the ball handler in a pick and roll scenario or in isolation comes to 49.3% of his possessions.

In comparison, Derrick Rose, clearly the focus of the Bulls offense, handles the ball in either of those scenarios on 57.4% of his possessions.  Rose’s numbers fall right in line with other elite point guards that largely operate their team’s offense.  Chris Paul is right at about 60% of his possessions spent in these scenarios and Steve Nash percentages are even higher, with better than 66% of his time in these possessions.

But the results on those possessions between Jennings and Rose, or most any other ball dominating point guard, are dramatically different.  On pick and rolls as ball handler, Jennings manages .84 points per possession while shooting sub-40% and 34.2% from three, while Nash scores .96 points per possession and shoots better than 50% and 40% respectively from the field and three.  In isolation, the numbers are even worse.

Rose averages 1.06 points per possession in isolation to Jennings’s .68.  While Jennings has made 33.9% of his shots and 27.3% of his threes in isolation, Rose has countered with 46.1% and 39.5% respectively.

Coaches want to put players in situations in which they can be successful.  It may seem like I’m setting a lofty standard to compare Jennings to an MVP candidate, a former MVP and a top five point guard, but those are the kinds of point guards that are given the keys to a team.  It seems a bit of a stretch to hand a team over to a second year point guard with a streaky jump shot and struggles at the rim.  Instead, Milwaukee seems to try and put Jennings into situations in which he can be more successful.  Specifically, they spot him up.

Spotting up results in passes coming to Jennings off ball swings or kick outs.  His success here relies largely on his teammates willingness to deliver the ball in a timely fashion.  The case could certainly be made that Jennings isn’t having the offense run through him in these situations, as he’s giving the ball up and only getting it back a fraction of the time.  But when he does get it back, he’s at his best.

He’s averaging 1.04 points per possession while spotting up.  His field goal percentage jumps to 38.3% and his three-point percentage in particular takes off, up to 38.4%.  This is where Jennings is at his best as a shooter.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that he gets more opportunities spotting up than the average point guard.  20.6% of Jennings offensive possessions result in him spotting up.  We’ll contrast that with Rose again.  Rose spots-up on just 8.5% of his possessions.  He’s not the only point guard with a low rate of spot-ups.  Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook spots-up just 5.4% of the time.  Steve Nash? 5.8% of the time.  Chris Paul?  8.6% of the time.

All these numbers may not seem so significant, but they go a long way towards explaining Jennings’s low assist totals.  Sure, it looks ugly that Jennings again looks on pace to finish with an average of fewer than five assists per game.  Combine that with his low shooting percentage and team leading points per game average, and the conclusion can easily be drawn that Jennings is a wannabe Iverson that shoots with even less accuracy.  But that would be inaccurate.

Jennings isn’t asked to create in the same way so many point guards are.  He’s being asked largely to play off his teammates, the same way he was last season.  While he occasionally becomes Milwaukee’s primary facilitator, he’s often working off ball swings and kick outs.  And often, when Jennings is able to make the correct passes, his teammates, the worst shooting group in the league, don’t reward him with a finish.  So he’s a point guard who isn’t being asked to facilitate and has teammates that can’t shoot: naturally, he’s going to have some low assist totals.

I don’t mean to gloss over his weaknesses as a point guard: he tends to go East and West on pick and rolls and often misses passes that, while difficult, really good point guards should make.  And in general, we don’t often see Jennings making passes that demonstrate he’s seeing a play ahead as often as a Nash or a Paul might.  But we’re talking about a second year point guard playing on a bad offensive team here.

This has been a tough year, and Jennings comments the other night seem more born out of a year’s worth of tough times rather than any real frustration inside of an offense.  Milwaukee plays to their point guards strengths in the half court.  In reality, Milwaukee’s offense ran in a pretty similar fashion throughout the second half of the season last year.  After John Salmons was acquired, he did the majority of the decision making in Milwaukee.  So things haven’t changed that much.  But that may be part of Jennings problem.

He could have felt like he was ready for more this season, but instead is experiencing the same secondary role he played last year.  One that’s suited to his game at this point.  As he develops as a player, those strengths will change and it will be on Milwaukee’s offense to do so as well.  As that happens, Jennings’ isolation and pick and roll numbers should improve and we may see those assist totals get a lot closer to the double figures Jennings was dreaming of before this season.

(NOTE: Data obtained for this post was gathered from  Kudos to them.)

Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog  Follow him on Twitter.  Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).

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  1. Pingback: Hoops Addict » Buzzer Beaters – 28/2/2011

  2. Great post, sir. This just goes to show that numbers don’t mean everything in basketball, it is necessary to dig deeper. The layman would have said “yeah! Brandon’s right, he should have the ball much more.” But clearly Scott Skiles has already put Brandon in the best position to succeed. So he should really look in the mirror and become a better shooter and passer. If he improves just a bit, that is a win or two for the Bucks right there.