The Bucks now have four guards capable of playing the point, which was the main reason I put Brandon Jennings atop a list of players who were “on notice” after the draft and its accompanying trades. Jennings has the most upside of the bunch, but with Beno Udrih, Shaun Livingston and Keyon Dooling all aboard, Scott Skiles could shorten Jennings’ leash a bit on those nights when all those step-back jumpers aren’t falling.
The Bucks’ offense has been abysmal since Jennings took over the point, and he probably hasn’t gotten as much blame for that (outside of Milwaukee, at least) as he deserves. There are caveats, of course: Jennings is only 21, and Milwaukee has surrounded him with marginal offensive players and a coach who isn’t exactly known for his creative offensive system. But nonetheless, it’s hard to not hurt your team when you take a lot of shots and hit less than 40 percent of them, as Jennings has done in each of his first two seasons.
The problems with Jennings and the Bucks’ offense go deeper than their point guard’s love of step-back, mid-range jumpers and difficult floaters. This is a team that simply does not produce good shots, and Jennings is part of that. He averaged just 4.8 assists per game last season, the fewest of all starting point guards, save for the non-distributors in Atlanta and Miami. Only 1.5 of those were at the rim (the best kind of assists) to rank 45th in the league, below all non-Hawks/Heat starting point guards except for Indiana’s Darren Collison, per Hoopdata.
This inability to penetrate and create good shots shows up in another way: Nearly 16 percent of Milwaukee’s offensive possessions ended with a pick-and-roll ball-handler either shooting, drawing a foul or turning over the ball. Only Orlando saw a greater percentage of its possessions end this way, according to the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports. The roll men on those Milwaukee pick-and-rolls finished only 5.4 percent of Milwaukee’s possessions; only the Magic, Thunder and Lakers had a larger gap in terms of the ratio between pick-and-rolls finished by the ball-handler versus the roll man, and one of those teams ran the triangle offense.
In other words, Milwaukee ran a ton of pick-and-rolls and produced very few good interior shots. Watching those rare plays on which the roll man does finish things is like watching an endless loop of sad pick-and-pop jumpers. That’s not all on Jennings, since a bunch of other guys (especially John Salmons) ran some of those plays. But Jennings is the team’s primary ball-handler, and the hundreds of clips available on Synergy confirm what the numbers say: Jennings struggles to create good shots for himself or his teammates.
I thought of all this when I read this bold statement from Jennings, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
“Next year will be my third year and I need to establish myself as one of the best point guards and one of the best players in the game. It’s just trying to get better and better every day. Working with Scott Skiles (before the lockout), getting in the weight room, dedicating the summer to strictly basketball. It’s going to be my third year, so it’s time to become an All-Star.”
I looked back at all that Synergy footage, expecting to come away thinking Jennings is deluded, and that he’ll likely settle in as a league-average starting point guard — at best. But you know what? If you watch all of those clips, you begin to notice something: The next step is there, staring Jennings in the face, if he works hard enough to take it.
Here’s what I mean:
• The best way to summarize why Jennings jacks too many mid-range jump shots on pick-and-roll plays is to say that he doesn’t quite know what to do yet when he sees that third defender rotating over to cut off his path. There are hundreds of clips where Jennings has dribbled around the pick and gotten by the big man defending the screener, only to stop short and pick up his dribble when that third defender is sliding over.
This is the moment point guards have to win — that moment when three guys are in various stages of defending you. There are lots of ways to win that moment. You can keep dribbling toward the hoop and try to get off a clean layup before that rotating big man can contest the shot well. You can take another dribbler or two, draw another defender closer to you and then kick the ball out to a shooter in the corner. You can drive to the hoop, draw that third big man and drop a short pass to that guy’s man — hopefully for a dunk.
All of those options are there on the video, clear as day. But Jennings rarely takes them. His tendency is to freeze when he sees that third guy coming and pull up for a mid-range jumper. Picking up his dribble like that prevents all those openings described above from developing. Jennings is a smart guy and a hard worker, and you can bet he recognizes this.
• He seems to settle for more of those jumpers when he goes to his right, which is his weak hand. He knows this:
The left-handed Jennings has worked on improving his right hand since he came into the league, and that mission continues – dribbling and passing with his right hand as well as taking contact around the basket and finishing with his right hand.
• When he does continue toward the hoop, he’s not yet able to make split-second passes consistently. The video is filled with images of Carlos Delfino and Salmons standing in the corner, wide open with their hands up, waiting for a pass that never comes. There are also lots of clips where Jennings draws that third defender at the rim and can’t manage to squeeze one of those interior passes to the big man who has just come open right next to him.
Sometimes this is because Jennings opts against the pass, choosing instead to force up a contested layup. These have been low-percentage shots for Jennings so far; he has ranked as one of the league’s worst finishers at the rim, though he improved last season, according to Hoopdata. And when he does try to thread one of those passes, it often results in a turnover, perhaps because the timing is just off.
Again, that’s not all on Jennings. He’s counting on the following guys to catch and finish: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Jon Brockman, Larry Sanders, Drew Gooden and a one-armed Andrew Bogut. A return to full health for Bogut would be huge for Jennings.
Still, you can see Jennings exploring and learning. That is a good sign.
• He is developing a brutal two-way crossover dribble that helps him beat the first line of defense. Some teams defend Jennings on pick-and-roll plays by having the big man guarding the screener sag back, conceding the mid-range jumper. Some bigs are better at this than others, and that crossover is a weapon Jennings can use to beat those back-pedaling bigs off the dribble instead of launching a 20-footer.
• He plays much better against so-so defenders. This is a sort of a ”duh” thing, but some of Jennings’ best work came when the Bucks attacked weaker interior defenders on pick-and-rolls. He looked bad against Kevin Garnett, Joel Anthony, Dwight Howard and other guys like that, but he looked now and then like an All-Star against Chris Wilcox, Andray Blatche, Channing Frye and the Raptors. That might not sound like much, but it’s a hint that the potential is here.
• Floor-spacing helps. When that third big man isn’t in the paint, Jennings is an aggressive attacker. If only someone on this roster could work as a consistent floor-stretching big man next season …
Jennings might not become an All-Star in the next few years, with Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and John Wall in the Eastern Conference. But if he can learn to take advantage of the gaps he’s already good enough to create, a major jump next season is a possibility.