I’m not sure we’ll ever know what happened with Brandon Jennings in early February last season.
Milwaukee’s premiere guard was cruising along through the first third of the lockout shortened 2011-12 season. Despite a road heavy early season schedule, Jennings was producing at a level far better than he had in his first two seasons. A career sub-40% shooter, Jennings was shooting 43% from the field and 37% from three through 22 games. He averaged 20.5 points, 5.4 assists and helped the exactly mediocre Bucks stay afloat at 10-12 despite little production from a fledgling sidekick in Stephen Jackson and 11 missed games from Andrew Bogut.
There were legitimate All-Star rumblings for Jennings. His coup de gras was a 31 point performance in a victory over the Miami Heat. He struggled in the first half, but poured in 14 fourth quarter points, including three 3-pointers in a two and a half minute stretch late that stretched Milwaukee’s lead from eight to 16 points, essentially sealing the game for the underdog Bucks. After his final three, his exuberance was on full display. His left hand curled into a monocle, his face into a sneer. Jennings was feeling himself and the fans in Milwaukee were doing the same. Again, optimism started to filter through the vents of the Bradley Center and again, like the night he poured in 55 points, it was because of Jennings.
He has a habit of being the center of attention. For better or worse.
He proceeded to turn in one of the worst stretches of his career over the next 13 games, nine of which the Bucks lost. 33% shooting, 22% 3-point shooting, 13.5 points per game. It was announced he wouldn’t be an All-Star. He decided to give an interview in which he said he was doing his homework on big market teams. It felt like everyone was waiting on him to tattoo Stephen Jackson’s name across his chest as the franchise battled with the volatile wing fighting with Scott Skiles.
No one could quite understand what had sparked such a spiral, though many suspected it had something to do with his friend Jackson. Jennings himself offered little explanation. When pressed on why he only took four shots against the Phoenix Suns in a loss early in his skid he replied, “I mean, I just didn’t have the shots that I usually have. That’s about it.” The guy who hardly ever took less than 10 shots and controlled the Bucks offense couldn’t find any shots? Things were strange.
Not long after Jennings had pulled himself out of whatever funk he had fallen into, Milwaukee traded both Jackson and Bogut for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh. The schedule softened up and the Bucks started winning some games, again with Jennings pacing the team. Over the last 31 games Jennings averaged 20.5 points on 44% shooting and 35% shooting on 3-pointers. His assist and turnover numbers remained fairly consistent all season, if nothing else did.
Jennings can hardly be held responsible for the franchise’s change in course last season. Bogut’s injuries had become too frequent an issue and his latest, a fractured ankle, came with all of the same uncertainty each injury before it did. It’s October 30 and Bogut’s only been cleared for contact over the last week in Golden State – the Bucks couldn’t afford to be that team waiting him out again. But there’s no doubt Jennings’ success and the Bucks success were tied together last season. And this season. And probably every season he remains in Milwaukee after this one.
This team is tied to the development of its current best player, just as it was with Bogut before and Redd before him. At some point, all three gave Milwaukee hope that they could be so much more. Redd seemed to get better every year, until he topped out as a hyper-efficient scorer incapable of making his teammates much better or inspiring a crowd. Bogut was one of the league’s premier defenders and a blossoming offensive center piece in the post before a gruesome injury robbed him of his right hand.
But Jennings is much different than either Bogut or Redd. He doesn’t get to the line much and he’s an average 3-point shooter, but he seems a much more dynamic player than Redd ever was. He plays with a fearlessness Milwaukee fans love to watch. He shoots and shoots in big moments and for some reason, the crowd often thinks he’s going to hit those shots. I guess that’s the advantage of being brash and having a few big moments. We’ll believe you have more in you. And unlike Bogut, Jennings has been able to remain healthy for the better part of his three seasons.
Jennings gives hope that he could eclipse both Redd and Bogut in terms of skill and accomplishments. No the bar isn’t sky high, but for the Bucks, it’d be nice to have a player consistently mentioned as one of the best at his position and capable of leading the team to the playoffs every year.
He’s a confident, spindly, shoot-first point guard trying to round out his game, adjust to a constantly changing supporting cast, lead a team desperate for a playoff birth into the first round and prove he’s a premiere player all at once. That’s a lot to manage. But if he wants to be a max contract player, that’s the task at hand.
The franchise has shifted onto the narrow shoulders of Brandon Jennings. This season is his chance to show he can consistently hold it up. Not for 20 or 30 game stretches at a time, but for all 82. That’s what separates players who get max contracts from those who get $10 million.
This is the year we see where Jennings falls.