It was the highest in a series of highs. If his home debut against the Pistons started to turn heads, the 55 point game demanded all eyes be on him. But, had Brandon Jennings never slapped a leaky Golden State defense upside the head with 55 points on that fateful November night, what would we think of him? Would he still be a building block without that bullet point on his resume? Or would he be just another guy in a long line of Bucks point guards worth keeping one eye on, but not worth gluing both of them to?
Jennings referred to that game as both a gift and a curse in the aftermath, but at this point it seems clear that when people think of Jennings, they still think of him knifing through defenders to smoothly lay the ball in as helpless Warriors defenders looked on. The images of him sinking one long jump shot after the next still are at the forefront of our minds, while he marches on with shooting numbers worse than virtually any regular point guard in the league.
I recognize that I’ve been as much of a Jennings apologist as anyone. Even as I write this I try and remind myself, “be patient, no one knows where his career is heading.” It’s hard not to think that way as a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee lacks for young, talented players. Without question, Jennings is young and, some of the time, he appears to be a special talent. It’s easy to hope that “some of the time” will turn into “all of the time.” Especially after that first month of last season, highlighted by that 55 point game.
But Jennings story has now become one of sample size. That first month? That’s the problem right now.
If not for that month, it would be easy to write off Jennings and be ready to watch him be shipped out. In Jennings first month as an NBA player, he combined an average of 22.1 points on 42% shooting with 49.3% accuracy from three, 5.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game. At age 20. Best of all, look what he was capable of! 55 points for a franchise desperate for fans and young talent! How could we not be swept up?
A season and a half later has gone by now, and people are still getting a little too excited. Since that first month, Jennings’ production and perception have been imperfect.
Never again has Jennings has Jennings shot 40% for an entire month. Things bottomed out last February when he made 30.4% of his shots (a hefty 11.4 per game mind you) and scored just 10.7 points nightly. An entire month of more shots than points. Last February, Milwaukee had just traded for John Salmons and it was easy to forget about Jennings’ problems when the Bucks slapped together a six game winning streak. He was the point guard during the streak, so he must have just been a great leader.
I bought into it too. It was so easy. But was he really a great leader? Or were the Bucks just benefitting from one of the best stretches of John Salmons career coinciding with All-NBA quality play from Andrew Bogut. The Jennings is a leader story line was easy to buy into late in the season especially, as he’d soon have an off-season’s worth of work to fix his struggles at the rim and tweak a shaky mid-range jumper.
But when he showed up this season and his struggles continued from the field, that was a bad sign. It seemed impossible Jennings could match his struggles of last February, but this one hasn’t been all that much better. 94 points on 116 shots. Yes, he’s coming back off a foot injury right now, but his shooting troubles aren’t isolated to February this season.
On the contrary, Jennings regression has been on ongoing theme throughout the season. Last season, in 89 total games (counting playoffs), Jennings shot 50% or better 14 times or 15.7% of the time. This season, in 36 games, he’s done it just three times, or 8.3% of the time. When he was able to convert 50% of his shots last season, it was a feat because he couldn’t finish at the rim. That problem hasn’t plagued him in the same way as an NBA Sophomore.
He’s improved considerably at the rim this season — 50.4% this season at the rim compared to 42.7% last season. Now, it’s his jump-shot that’s giving him trouble. Jennings has dipped from 34% to 31% on 16-23 foot jumpers and from 37.4% to 34.4% on threes.
While he’s missed time this year with an injury, one that no doubt pushed those percentages a tick lower since his return, that’s not the only explanation. This can not all be attributed to a broken toe. There’s a pretty large sample size worth of data that says something very clearly: Brandon Jennings is a bad shooter.
And then there’s a small sample size that says something out: Brandon Jennings is a special talent.
Milwaukee’s bet quite a bit that the small sample size is the one that will win out as Jennings continues on his NBA journey. They bet Drew Gooden’s contract on it. They bet the resigning of John Salmons on it. Those guys were seen as complements to Jennings and Bogut then and are still seen as that now.
It’s too soon to say Jennings can’t become more accurate. But right now, he’s a pretty run of the mill point guard, closer to the Aaron Brooks’s of the world than the Rajon Rondo’s. He will very likely improve in the coming years, not many players fail to get even a little better as the calendar continues to turn over year after year, but will he be a superstar? It’s probably too much to ask to ever expect Jennings to consistently be that player he was in the special first month of his NBA career. The guy who seemed capable of dropping 55 points on any given night.