Jennings makes most of summer to play away concerns over reputation
Brandon Jennings faced criticism before draft he was too focused on scoring
Jennings led Las Vegas Summer League by handing out 8.2 assists per game
More topics: Thunder's James Harden impresses, Blazers make a smart purchase
There are the usual rubber-stamp qualifiers -- it's only summer league, he's the No. 10 pick and should impress -- except that Brandon Jennings is not the usual marquee choice and this is not the usual offseason for the Milwaukee Bucks and point guards. These were five games in Las Vegas that meant something.
The statistics (8.2 assists per game to tie Marcus Williams for the tournament lead, 14.6 points, 37.9 percent from the field, 42.9 percent on threes), should, of course, be disregarded. The meaningful reads were that Jennings carried himself well in the way he interacted with teammates and his attention to getting others involved in the offense, factors that make it easier for the Bucks to officially begin the point-guard transition from the opening of training camp.
They would be important considerations in tracking any rookie who might be immediately thrust into a starting role, especially at 19 years old and at point guard, but Jennings pushes beyond any typical debate regarding on-court development. He pushes a lot of things, actually -- pushes the ball at blur speed, pushes the envelope. (The YouTube clip of Jennings tossing around the N-word a triple-double amount of times. Calling out Ricky Rubio as pure hype. And that was just his June.)
Plus, Jennings not only spent 2008-09 in Italy, but also got inconsistent minutes in the European class system that ordinarily favors older players. Add it all up and his Vegas run meant something, more than the coming attractions of any other lottery pick and probably more than any rookie.
Quickly addressing criticism in Vegas from some teams leading up to the draft that he will spend too much time looking for his own shot was admirable. And coming off as a model citizen delighted the Bucks. But the timing was critical. It came with Ramon Sessions, a part-time starter last season, as a restricted free agent. It came with Jennings proving he is capable of challenging for the opening lineup right away, in the face of the league-wide consensus that he needs at least another year of prep work and maybe two.
"We saw the kind of teammate he is," general manager John Hammond said. "That was an important moment. He was 100 percent concerned about getting everyone else involved."
Jennings' debut fell in line with what the Bucks already believed: that he is mature, no matter the common misstep he has fallen to of leading with his swagger. They can click on YouTube the same as anybody. But owner Herb Kohl met with Jennings before the draft. Hammond, a high-character personnel boss, and coaches and others with an important voice in management, spent time with Jennings during the vetting process. Three members of the Milwaukee front office went to Europe last season.
"I think sometimes there's a perception of people, and the perception is not always reality," Hammond said. "And certainly there were perception issues with him before the draft and right after. But what we found is that he wants to please. He wants to please the coaches. He wants to please his teammates. You see that when he's so unselfish on the court.
"We felt like we had a pretty good handle on him, drafting him with the 10th pick. But like any pick, you don't know for sure until you see him in situations every day. It is summer league. That being said, as a measuring stick, it was an important time."
No one is saying Jennings is the opening-night point guard, but it just became a lot easier for everyone else to project him in that role. And if not opening night, sometime soon. Luke Ridnour, who started 50 times last season, should be back. Sessions may be back -- the Bucks will likely match any reasonable offer sheet rather than let a commodity walk for nothing or re-sign Sessions and see what trade talks come before February. But summer league was an unusually meaningful step to the future for a player who showed well and a team that got something more important than the statistics. An affirmation.
The footsteps are getting louder
Slowly, but absolutely surely, the Thunder continue to gain on the pack in the West, now with a new reason to be very encouraged about the future. That's in case it isn't enough that Kevin Durant is beginning to touch stardom, that Russell Westbrook needs months, rather than years, to become a starting point guard and the Thunder establishing themselves as one of the best rebounding teams in the league.
The post-summer league scouting report from one opposing personnel boss is that "James Harden is as solid as they get. He's got 20-point scorer written all over him." Said another: "NBA skills and NBA mind." Meaning the No. 3 pick in the June draft, a shooting guard from Arizona State, is tracking toward an immediate and significant contribution despite flying under the radar of the likes of Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet, Tyreke Evans, Jonny Flynn and Rubio.
As the others have been praised and dissected, Harden quietly has established a game that is much more a statement on dependability than flash. He was always one of the most NBA-ready players available and just happened to be a perfect position fit for the Thunder. Playing next to Westbrook, Harden should offer Oklahoma City a secondary ball handler capable of scoring at a level to make him a perfect complementary threat for Durant and deliver the offensive boost the Thunder needs.
The Pacers' surprising decision to buy out Jamaal Tinsley came after president Larry Bird spent the season insisting that no Pacer would negotiate his way out of a contractual obligation, as a matter of team policy and principle. What changed was that Tinsley had an arbitration hearing scheduled this week in an attempt to force his way back on the active roster or to be waived while collecting the full $14.7 million due on his deal. Indy management was either concerned it would lose or simply wanted to get away from the soap opera before it started all over again. Last season Tinsley was getting his paychecks while being banned from any team activity, Conseco Fieldhouse and, presumably, the Indy 500, French Lick and the Grotto at Notre Dame as well. The Indianapolis Star put the buyout at $10.7 million.
Andre Miller is a good pickup for the Trail Blazers. Andre Miller at $14 million the next two seasons plus a team option for 2011-12 is a very good pickup. Portland accomplished a summer priority by upgrading at point guard without having to pay close to the money it would have taken to land Hedo Turkoglu or Paul Millsap, the two near-misses in free agency. Miller should fit. But if he doesn't, he will be easy to move at that price and, even better, with an expiring contract in a year. Talk about having a tough offseason break right.
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