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Perhaps that last sentiment is of some consolation to the franchises that passed on Jennings. So bleak were his prospects on the morning of the draft in June that agent Bill Duffy pulled him out of the green room to spare Jennings and his family from the scrutiny of the cameras if he slipped out of the lottery. Not even Milwaukee, picking 10th, was willing to commit to taking him. "I had no landing spot that I could gather from talking to every team," says Duffy. "How could they not understand the depth of what he was made of?"
Many prospective NBA employers dismissed Jennings as a poor shooter who lacked discipline and was turnover-prone. Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson, the former Oklahoma and Indiana coach, had heard the word punk thrown around. Sampson believes the misperceptions about Jennings's attitude had a lot to do with his unprecedented decision to forgo college and play in Europe last season. "Brandon is uniquely independent," Sampson says. "He's been a little bit of a lone wolf in his path."
His outgoing personality masks a serious and disciplined approach to his career. Since the suicide of his father while he was in grade school, Jennings had come to view his prodigious talent as a means to support his half-brother, Terrence Phillips, now 13, and their mother, Alice Knox. To improve his NBA stock he transferred as a junior from Dominguez High in Compton, Calif., to Oak Hill Academy in Mount of Wilson, Va., where he averaged 35.5 points to become the consensus high school player of the year as a senior. Jennings committed to Arizona but twice failed to pass the qualifying exams. So he connected with Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker executive who had been touting Europe as an alternative for high school graduates who didn't want to postpone their pro careers for a year while waiting to become draft-eligible.
In July 2008, Vaccaro arranged a tryout in Las Vegas that was attended by Dejan Bodiroga, the Euroleague legend who had retired to become general manager of the Italian club Lottomatica. One week later Jennings was holding a press conference in Rome after signing a contract that would liberate him to earn $1.2 million in salary and endorsements last season.
Jennings found his year abroad unsettling. He was playing with and against grown men who were sometimes twice his age. The refereeing was at times unfathomable, the coaches were forbidding, and the games were played at a slower, more regimented rhythm that he was never able to grasp. "I wasn't myself, I played too tense," he says. "If I turned over the ball or if a guy scored on me, then I was coming out of the game for sure."
Had the Bucks focused merely on Jennings's disappointing numbers—6.3 points in 17.8 minutes over 43 games in the Euroleague and Italian league—they never would have taken him. But assistant general manager Jeff Weltman, one of three Bucks executives to scout Jennings last season, was struck by Knox's attending all of the team's twice-daily practices. Because Jennings wasn't licensed to drive she ferried him back and forth to the gym twice a day in their Volvo station wagon. She would sit in the stands quietly watching movies on her laptop or instant messaging with friends, depending on the time of day back home in California. "Jeff came back talking as much about his mom as he was about Brandon," says Bucks G.M. John Hammond. "Jeff's point was that she never came near the floor, how professional and respectful she was and the commitment she and his brother made to support him over there."
Adding to that commitment were the daily two-hour individual workouts Jennings underwent over the second half of the season with Lottomatica assistant Nenad Trajkovic, who trained him exhaustively in the pick-and-roll and other NBA skills. Many scouts had no faith in Jennings's jumper—he shot a measly 38.1% in Europe—but he was determined to answer their doubts. "One day the trainer did some exercises with Brandon that just about killed him," says Knox. "If he missed one shot, he had to start all over again, and it got so bad I had to go outside and do a prayer for him, I was so frustrated for him. But now I think about Brandon scoring those 55 points and coming down the lane and pulling up for those shots, and they were the same shots that trainer was making him do over and over. That work really paid off for him."
After Duffy pulled Jennings out of the green room on draft day, he rented a ballroom at the Westin Times Square where the family and 30 friends could watch his selection on TV, no matter how long they might have to wait. "It was a devastating day," says Knox. "All day ESPN was whaling on him so bad that his stock was dropping."
From age 16 Jennings had submitted himself to three hard years away from home with the singular goal of improving himself for the NBA. He was convinced the investment had paid off, but now he worried that he was the only one who believed. His heart sank when the Warriors and the Knicks passed him by at Nos. 7 and 8 (to take Davidson guard Stephen Curry and Arizona forward Jordan Hill, respectively), even though he'd had his best predraft workouts with those teams. After USC guard DeMar DeRozan went to the Raptors at No. 9, Jennings had no idea that he stood alone at the top of the Bucks' board after their other option, Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn, had been taken sixth by the Timberwolves.
Jennings couldn't hear Stern announce his last name above the screaming. His mother was hugging him. "Everybody was crying," says Duffy. "I'm someone who doesn't cry, I just don't, but when his name was called, I was crying."