Jennings isn't your typical rookie
Brandon Jennings stands in front of the gym's mirrored wall, slouching his lean frame between takes. Lights and cameras surround him. Even a production staffer pulls out his iPhone to sneak a quick shot.
Meanwhile, the 20-year-old pro waits for instruction, turning his head for a glimpse of his reflection through the faux fog and revealing a mischievous smile. His sleeveless, white Under Armour shirt clings to his almost concave chest and exposes the many tattoos on his arms. His high-top fade stands on edge, adding an inch or two to his 6-foot-1 height. He dribbles an imaginary basketball left, right, between his legs and fades away for the jumper before the director interrupts him.
"I want to see you walk toward us, kicking up your legs," he says.
Jennings lets out an almost imperceptible sigh, like a teenager whose dad has just moved up his curfew, before he begins. He'd confess the next night that "that's not even a move I make" of the director's high-kick command. Still, Jennings realizes these long photo shoots are part of being one of basketball's brightest stars and the first-ever hoopster to represent Under Armour.
And after his 55-point performance in the seventh game of his NBA career, he cemented his status as one of the most popular players, too.
Last season was a different story. Playing for Lottomatica Virtus Roma of the Italian League, he averaged just 5.5 points, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 17 minutes per game in 27 appearances as the first American high school hoops star to go pro in Europe. Still, he says it was the right choice, emphasizing the hours of additional practice he put himself through as well as the instruction he received from his coaches and teammates.
"Everything I've been through over there -- not playing, having the reality that you're not bigger than anybody -- I was humbled and that made me want to work even harder," Jennings says.
Adds his high school coach at Oak Hill Academy, Steve Smith: "He stuck it out under tough circumstances when he wasn't getting minutes. I'm not sure if every guy is mentally tough enough to do what he did."
The support from his family certainly helped. As did the motivation he got from watching NBA games on his computer.
He lived with his mother, Alice Knox, and little brother, Terrence, who was his shooting partner almost every evening after Jennings practiced with the team. Knox tells the story of New Year's Eve, when she, Terrence and Brandon were the only ones in the gym until almost 11:30 p.m. Afterward, they went outside to the parking lot, turned up the car radio and set off fireworks (legal in Europe), holding an impromptu family celebration to ring in 2009.
Six months later, they'd have more reason to celebrate when the Milwaukee Bucks took Jennings with the 10th overall pick in the NBA draft. But several teams selected point guards ahead of Jennings, making the night bittersweet.
"Nobody could give me any guarantees," Jennings says. "Even on ESPN, they're saying, 'He's going 20, he's going 45.' All that doubting me ... once I heard my name called, it wasn't happy as much as it was like, 'All right, now it's time to get busy and prove everybody wrong.'"
Jennings' first chance came during the preseason, in which he was behind Luke Ridnour on the depth chart at point guard. Following a team practice one day, the team was divided into two squads to scrimmage against each other. Jennings' team swept the competition -- and he scored every one of his team's points.
Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson, who coached the summer league team and forged an immediate bond with Jennings, recalls that event as Jennings' first turning point in the NBA.
"The next morning in the coaches meeting, Scott [Skiles] turned to us and said, 'However many years I've been coaching, I can only remember a handful of guys that can dominate an NBA practice like that kid did,'" Sampson says.
Jennings started at the point in the team's next preseason game. And he's started every game since, the only Bucks player to do so this season.
He'd proven himself to his team, but the game Jennings says "really changed things" on a national scale came Nov. 14 against the Golden State Warriors. He didn't score a single point in the first quarter but, as befits his style, kept on shooting. His shots started falling -- he tallied 29 points alone in the third quarter and finished the game with a total of 55, breaking the Bucks' franchise record for most points by a rookie, previously held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (51).
"That was one of the nights that I just couldn't miss," Jennings says, before grinning and adding, "And that was a team that skipped on me [in the draft], so it wasn't a bad time."
"After that 55-point game there was a lot more pressure on him," says teammate Andrew Bogut. "He was the first one to say it was almost like a curse. But he's kept his head up, and as long as we're winning games, it's good."
Heading into the All-Star break, the Bucks are 24-27 and in contention for a playoff spot in the East, something few could've imagined in the preseason. Attendance has increased, too (two sellouts thus far, as opposed to none last season), and media relations staff members said that many season-ticket holders who had been undecided about renewing mentioned Jennings as the main reason they chose to do so.
But Jennings says he isn't letting the hype get to his head.
"You never know what might happen," says Jennings. "It's a better feeling than last year, when I felt like I was forgotten and everyone doubted me. But now, to come here and spark this city up, it's a great feeling."
After his early success, Jennings' numbers have tapered off of late. Although he was voted the Eastern Conference's rookie of the month for a third consecutive time in January -- one of only four rookies to ever accomplish such a feat -- averaging 14.2 points and 6.6 assists and posting a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, he has struggled as teams have changed the way they're defending him.
"He needs to improve in shot selection, making shots and defense," Skiles said. "But the things he does very well -- handling the ball, running the offense, not turning the ball over -- those are things that are really hard to teach. The other things we can work with him on, and with experience, will take care of itself."
The team realizes that, as with most rookies, there will be growing pains. "They're giving him the ball, allowing him to make mistakes, but at the same time, holding him accountable," says Jerry Stackhouse, who joined the Bucks in January. "The experience of being overseas and not playing a ton was a humbling situation for him, so anything that happens in the NBA, he'll just take in stride."
Such as a late January home game against Miami in which Jennings struggled at times offensively, watching as shot after shot bounced off the rim or fell wide. Skiles sat him for several minutes of the fourth quarter as the Heat chipped away at the Bucks' once 19-point lead. After Miami cut the score to 89-84 with 59 seconds remaining, Jennings brought the ball up and swished a long 3, effectively sealing the win. The crowd erupted; Jennings, however, didn't celebrate, didn't even pump his fist; instead, he walked back toward the bench after a called timeout, shifting his mouthpiece back and forth as he listened to Skiles' instruction.
If we make the playoffs, I should get rookie of the year.” -- Jennings
"Of all the things I've learned to appreciate about Brandon, he's not afraid to fail," Sampson says. "A 4-for-18 game or missing the game-winner like he did in Houston doesn't keep him from coming back and shooting that same shot. Then being in the same situation against Philadelphia and making the shot. Brandon reacted the same to both.
"He doesn't celebrate his victories, and he doesn't sulk about his failures. For a young person, that's an unbelievable trait."
Though his mother and brother aren't living in Milwaukee, Jennings and his mom talk every day via BlackBerry Messenger. Knox and Terrence visited Milwaukee for three weeks over Christmas and New Year's, and the brothers held snowball fights and relished in the wintry weather.
"I never thought I'd see Brandon lying out in the middle of the driveway making a snow angel with his brother, but there he was," Knox says.
Jennings' father committed suicide when Brandon was in grade school. He says he doesn't remember a lot about his father, but has adopted one of his habits: an obsession with cleanliness.
"To this day, I always have to have fresh clothes, I have to shower, even if I'm not leaving the house," Jennings says. "I think I got that from him."
Jennings drives a Ford Edge and lives in a modest three-bedroom house with his cousin in the suburb of St. Francis, which he chose for its proximity to the team's practice facility. He has two aptly named pets: a Yorkie, Buck, and a Maltese/shih tzu mix, Cali. His current reading list includes the nonfiction book "Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality," written by Henry Cloud, a clinical psychologist and corporate consultant.
While he is hardly shy, Jennings chooses to keep a close circle around him. For All-Star Weekend, in which he'll play in the Rookie Challenge as well as the Skills Challenge, Jennings will be accompanied only by his family, Bucks staff members and a security guard.
He demonstrates little bravado about personal accolades but is still confident in his abilities. "If we make the playoffs, I should get rookie of the year," Jennings declares.
Sampson already sees improvement in the rookie since the regular season began. He cites Jennings' performance against Minnesota on Jan. 23, when he tallied 18 points, 13 assists and only one turnover, as his best game to date.
"His talent level is good enough to get 55 points, but he can also balance points and assists on a given night and be the best player on the floor," Sampson says. "He may never have another 55-point game, but he's a better player today than he was when he shot 55."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
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