What is Brandon Jennings' encore?
After a rookie season full of ups and downs, what's next for Brandon Jennings?
Seven games into his rookie campaign, Jennings set the bar so high that no one could jump over it, not even with NBA-banned flubber-like shoes. In his first game, he missed a triple-double by one dime and one board. Then he proceeded to score 24, 25 and 32 points before exploding for 55 against the Golden State Warriors. As if those numbers weren't impressive enough, Jennings scored all 55 of those points in the final three quarters and broke the Milwaukee Bucks' rookie scoring record held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Only Earl Monroe (56), Rick Barry (57) and Wilt Chamberlain (58 twice) had bigger rookie scoring games in NBA history.
Obviously, Jennings wasn't going to maintain that sort of epic pace, but his scoring dropped from 22.1 points per game in November to 16.7 in December to 14.2 in January to just 10.7 in February before leveling off at about 14 the rest of the way. The diminished scoring wasn't the worst of it, though. Jennings' field goal percentage was brutal, as he shot 42 percent during his historic first month, then failed to top 38.5 percent in any month afterward. That includes a hideous 32.4 percent in January and vomit-inducing (at least if he was on your team at the time) 30.7 percent in February.
So, what should we expect this season from a kid who ran the gamut from Kareem to vomit as a rook? Let's go back just a little bit further to see what his expectations were coming into that first campaign. Jennings played his high school ball at perennial power Oak Hill Academy and was one of the top players in the country. Despite his obvious hoops skills, Jennings wasn't sure where he might be able to play college ball due to shaky SAT scores, and since recent rule changes kept him from joining the NBA immediately, he made the bold decision to spend a year balling in Europe rather than go to college.
He saw limited playing time (less than 20 minutes per game) for his Italian team and failed to produce any notable stats, so many pundits wrote him off as a rook. But something important happened to him that wouldn't have happened if he had played college ball. Instead of being a star and chucking shots for a high-profile college squad, Jennings was forced to work on his fundamentals day in and day out as an anonymous role player in Italy. I felt that gave him an increased shot at being a breakout rookie and sat around for 40 minutes in a keeper auction last fall just so I could spend my last $3 on him.
Let there be no doubt that despite his poor field goal percentage, Jennings plays hard and constantly tries to improve. We know this because he plays for ever-feisty coach Scott Skiles, who has a permanent doghouse for players who don't play hard and try to improve. Even in his darkest moments as a rook, Jennings had Skiles' support. Going into this season, Jennings has a clear role as the full-time starting point guard and should see 33-35 minutes per game.
What will he do with those minutes? Well, we should see a boost in his assist production, because the Bucks added scorers Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts, kept John Salmons and have Andrew Bogut relatively healthy at the moment. That means he has teammates who can finish his dimes. He averaged 6.2 assists per game before the All-Star break and 5.0 after. I'm expecting him to average between 6.5 and 7.5 this season. Jennings' speed and feel for the game helped him average 1.3 steals on the season, a number that should rise closer to 2.0 as his career progresses.
There's also hope for his field goal percentage, because he dropped a solid 81.7 percent of his free throw attempts and a respectable 37.4 percent of his 3-point attempts last season. John Hollinger noted that dating to 2004, Jennings is the only player to take more than 200 shots near the rim and make less than 40 percent of them. Obviously, that can't get worse, so with a decent uptick in finishes and a slight improvement in his mid-range jumper (37.0 percent as a rookie), he would get his field goal percentage on the right side of 40 percent. If he makes a big improvement, he could get close to 42 percent, which would make his shooting a non-issue in relative fantasy terms.
My projections for Jennings this season: 16.8 ppg, 7.3 apg, 3.5 rpg, 1.7 spg, 2.0 3-ppg, 84.0 free throw percentage and 40.0 field goal percentage. Those are quality numbers in points-based systems. And if you construct a team that can handle his sketchy field goal percentage, he's going to crank out quality numbers in roto scoring, too. I think, eventually, he will score closer to 20 ppg and shoot 42-43 percent from the field. That probably won't happen this season, but that upside makes him a tantalizing pick on draft day, especially as your second point guard.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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