TREVISO, Italy — Two weeks ago, Brandon Jennings’ grand European experiment ended with a whimper and then, a demand.His team, Lottomotica Roma, had just been upset in the quarterfinals of the Italian League playoffs. Jennings, who many NBA scouts predict will be a lottery pick in this month’s NBA draft, hadn’t played a minute in the entire playoff series.Frustrated, and a little bit angry, Jennings had had enough. Before his team had even left the court he was on the phone with his agent.
“Get me out of here.”
Within 48 hours Jennings was on a plane back home to Los Angeles. His one-year European adventure was over.
Last Friday, a number of top NBA GMs headed in the opposite direction, to Italy, to watch Jennings play in the 2009 Reebok Eurocamp.
Their flights were booked weeks in advance on the promise that Jennings would attend. The buzz about seeing Jennings unleashed drew an unusually high amount of GMs to the event. But by the time they arrived on Friday, they already knew the bad news. While the Eurocamp had a number of interesting international prospects, the main attraction wasn’t coming.
“We all came to see whether this kid can really play,” one veteran GM told ESPN.com. “I’d heard the hype, watched the video and heard various opinions from my scouts. I wanted to see how he stacked up against other top kids his age. Then he doesn’t show. He sure isn’t making this easy on us. You want to like the kid, but he ain’t giving you a lot to go on.”
Other GMs around the league have expressed similar opinions all week. A few didn’t even make the trip to Italy after they got word he backed out. The ones who are there are asking the same question: Is Jennings worthy of the hype?
The answer to that question varies widely here at the camp. I spent the weekend talking to dozens of people in Italy. Some were Italian coaches. Others were rival Italian GMs. I talked to veteran NBA international scouts, coaches and executives who have followed him closely this year.
Their descriptions of Jennings — the player and the man — were all virtually identical. To a man, nearly every person I spoke with described the same strengths and weaknesses. But when it comes to making conclusions about his future in the NBA, there is no consensus.
Jennings remains the biggest enigma in this year’s draft.
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Jennings shocked the college basketball world last year when he decided to skip his freshman season at Arizona and leave the NCAA behind for a professional contract in Rome. Some say he was motivated by low SAT scores. Others by money. A few whispered that Jennings was being controlled by basketball mogul Sonny Vaccaro — a man on a mission to buck the NCAA and all of its eligibility rules.
Jennings has been equally vilified and revered in America for his groundbreaking move. The college basketball powers that be mocked the decision. Why would the NBA take seriously anyone who skipped the chance to play at a blue-chip school in one of the best conferences in the nation?
But for those who have been looking for alternative routes to the NBA outside of the indentured servitude that is big-time college basketball — Jennings was a trailblazer. If Jennings could do it, they argued, maybe the NCAA, now faced with real competition for the top high school prospects — would loosen its draconian amateur rules. Maybe it would even think about paying its star athletes.
Despite the hopes and fears on both sides, Jennings’ one-year stint in Rome wasn’t everything either side had hoped for. Much to the chagrin of the anti-Jennings, pro-college contingent, virtually every NBA scout and GM who saw him play reported that he matured, both as a player and a person, in Italy. He got more practice time than he would ever have received in college. He was schooled in the fundamentals by one of the best developmental coaches in Europe, Serbia’s Nenad Trajkovic. Most importantly, he learned how to play like a man and act like a pro on and off the court.
However, the experience itself was a mixed bag. For the pro-Jennings, anti-college crowd, Jennings’ experience in Europe reads as a cautionary tale. He never got consistent minutes. He struggled with his shot and confidence. Team politics were a major factor in whether he was playing or not. And, as Jennings told The New York Times in January, being a 19-year-old pro in Europe wasn’t everything he thought it would be.
“I’ve gotten paid one time this year,” Jennings told the Times. “They treat me like a little kid. They don’t see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you don’t play a lot. Some nights you play a lot. Some nights you don’t play at all. That’s just the way it is.”
The “way it is” posed a number of problems for NBA teams trying to scout Jennings this season. Scouting a teenager in the Italian League is a little different from scouting him in the Pac-10.
Show up at one game, like the Euroleague contest against Tau Ceramica earlier this year, and you might see Jennings shine. Show up in March, and he might barely get onto the floor against weak competition.
Drop in on a practice in December, and you’d see Jennings getting picked apart by the coaching staff and veteran European and American players. See him in March, and watch him dominate those same teammates.
See Jennings make a spectacular pass worthy of the “SportsCenter” highlight reel one minute. Watch him take a bad shot and make an even uglier turnover a few minutes later.
Jennings was, to put it mildly, all over the place this season and many of the opinions from the people I spoke with varied based on when, and where, they had seen him.
A number of Italian coaches and GMs weren’t big fans. They felt his game was too American. They said he struggled to rein in his instincts to start playing one-on-one when a teammate missed a shot or two. They lauded his athleticism and acknowledged his abilities to do things on the floor few Europeans could ever dream of. But when pressed, they saw an athlete, not a basketball player.
“Jennings’ game is all about his athleticism,” one prominent European GM told me. “Like many of the Americans we see come to Europe, he just doesn’t have a great feel for the game. No one ever taught him how or when to pass. Speed and athleticism are fine. But I want a point guard who puts the team above their own individual game. I don’t blame the young man for this. He is just the product of a corrupt development system that is ruining American basketball.” To say that many of the Italian opinions I heard on Jennings also conformed to stereotypes that many European scouts and coaches have about virtually all American players, white or black, is regrettable, but true. Much of the world doesn’t hold American hoops in the same high regard as it did a decade ago. A few dysfunctional Team USA performances and some young international prospects who were ruined when they went to the NBA play a large part in how the world sees the American game.
But their opinions were also backed up by a number of veteran NBA scouts who questioned whether Jennings was the second coming of Allen Iverson, not Chris Paul.
“I see a lot more of Iverson to Jennings’ game than I do CP3′s,” one veteran American scout who has watched Jennings play in both America and Italy said. “Iverson can dish out assists too, but he controls the tempo of a game with his own game, not by making others better. I see a lot of that in Jennings. He makes the pass if he can make a spectacular one. If he can’t, he shoots the shot. Either way his mentality is what makes him look the best, not necessarily the team.”
I’ve seen some of what those experts describe in the 10 or so games I’ve watched of Jennings this season via video. More scouts say they see more evidence of the flashy, selfish Jennings in the practices than in the games. However, I’ve also seen Jennings make the right decisions for his team when it matters. He may have more work to do in that area, but so do Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.
“He’s a smart kid,” said one NBA coach who saw him later in the season. “You look at him in high school and now and it’s clear to me he’s started to pick up the rhythm of the European game. He’s never going to be a European-type of player. But neither is Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant. No matter how many Europeans you talk to, he’s never going to measure up that way. But he’s trying and is showing he can be effective in the half-court game. Watch a practice and you see what he can do when that game starts going up and down. I think it’s really important that a player learns to play both ways. Jennings has learned that this year.”
Several veteran NBA scouts, who have been scouting both college ball and the international game for years, rolled their eyes at the criticism Jennings was getting.
One scout, who claimed to have watched Jennings in person during “at least a dozen games” and “tons of practices” (the most of any person I spoke with), was particularly adamant. He felt strongly that Jennings was one of the two or three best prospects in the draft.
“I ask two questions about every prospect. First, do they have the talent to play in the NBA? Second, have they gotten better? I think Jennings gets two huge check marks on both accounts.
“First, Jennings is a crazy athlete. He’s as quick as anyone in the draft. No one is going to be able to stay in front of him. He explodes around the basket and he’s a clever passer when he wants to be. We saw all of that in high school and if you watched him enough in Europe, you saw it there too. Yeah, he needs to get stronger and work on some stuff. But the raw talent is totally there.”
OK, that’s talent. Now here’s the thing. What did he need to work on?
“Defense. He’s become a much better and more committed defender this year. Everyone who has watched him play would acknowledge that.
“Basketball IQ. The European game is a thinking game. He’s had to learn all sorts of things that most college kids aren’t confronted with. There’s no way you can argue his IQ hasn’t increased.
“Understanding the team concept. That’s what Europe is all about and Jennings has made great strides there. He’s not perfect, but he’s much better than when he came.
“Shooting. You can’t just look at his shooting numbers for the year. His shot is getting better. I don’t think it’s broken and he’s been taking a lot of shots.
“Maturity. Many four-year college players come overseas and can’t handle the dramatic change in lifestyle. They are home before Christmas. This kid stuck it out. He left his friends and his life behind. Things didn’t go his way with the team he chose. He wasn’t pampered. He felt disrespected. He didn’t complain. He showed up every day and worked his tail off. He kept getting better. What else do you want?
“In every area he’s gotten better. You can’t say the same thing about Jrue Holiday or Jonny Flynn or whoever you want to put up there. This kid’s learning curve has been dramatic. The numbers are just a part of the story.”
That opinion was more typically shared by scouts who had seen Jennings a lot, less so by GMs who may have seen him play only once or twice.
“I’m not sure how you take a kid without a real body of work that high,” one NBA GM in Treviso said. “I know this is a weak draft, but are we really taking kids who have struggled to produce in college or Europe in the lottery? I’m all for upside, but it’s ridiculous. If Jennings can’t get on the floor in Italy, how does he help my team in the next couple of years? How do you take him over some really talented college kids who have proven they can play? Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson, Steph Curry. Those guys are talented too and they have track records.”
As the opinions continued to pour in over the weekend — some pro, some con — I caught a break Sunday night when word came to me that Jennings’ development coach for the past year, Nenad Trajkovic, was in the gym scouting prospects.
Trajkovic is sort of a legend in Europe when it comes to developing young players. He spent years in Serbia preparing guys all the way back to the Vlade Divac years. He’s been hired by teams around the world to work with some of the top young talent in the world. He was hired by Jennings’ team midseason as a lead assistant and spent every day with Jennings working on his game.
Jennings would practice up to four hours a day, sometimes longer with Trajkovic. A few hours were spent each day learning the offensive and defensive schemes. The rest was focused on fundamental development — ballhandling, shooting, basketball philosophy.
No one, I would submit, knows Jennings better.
“For sure, Brandon matured as a person and a player this year,” Trajkovic said. “From the beginning I was concerned when I saw tape of him in the U.S. and watched him in Italy. He was a special athlete. But he didn’t know how to play the game. He liked to play one-on-one or one-on-five, not five-on-five. He dribbled too much. He took bad shots. He made incorrect reads.
“The coach didn’t trust him. This team was a veteran team. Winning was important and Brandon didn’t know how to help his team win. We worked every day on his decision-making. We worked on the pick-and-roll. We taught him defense. The plan was to bring him along slowly and then, by the middle [of the season] he could be more trusted.”
Trajkovic said that Jennings was a hard worker. He said Jennings was a quick study and that the improvement he made in the first few months was dramatic, albeit mostly in practice. However, disaster struck for Jennings when his head coach was fired and replaced with a veteran coach who felt a lot of pressure to win immediately.
“The coach didn’t want to take the risk with Brandon,” Trajkovic said. “He knew Brandon was improving but he felt more comfortable with veterans. You have to understand. Brandon was leaving, so why risk something for a player who will leave your team anyway?”
Trajkovic said Jennings kept working hard. They often would simulate game conditions in practice and Jennings would dominate, especially later in the season. “He kept his focus. Playing was important. But so was development. Sometimes you can’t control how much you play. But you can keep working and stay positive. Brandon did this.”
As the regular season ended, Jennings came down with a mild case of tendinitis in his knees. The doctors suggested he rest for a game or two. He quickly recovered, but by then, he was totally out of the rotation. His coach didn’t want to mess with the chemistry of the team and Jennings watched, helpless on the sidelines, as his team fell in the quarterfinals to Biella — a team that he had played his best game in the Italian league against just a few months earlier. Trajkovic, for one, didn’t blame Jennings for wanting to get out.
“He’s a competitor. He was frustrated. He had worked every single day. There were no days off. He hadn’t been home. He would have to wait more than a week for the camp. I think he felt it was enough. I agree with this. Brandon is so much better than the talent here [Trajkovic pointing to the players in the Eurocamp]. He is far and away in front of them in skills and athletic ability. He needs to be competing against your best.”
Trajkovic wasn’t always glowing in his praise. He said Jennings still had more to learn. He needed to totally buy into the team game. He needed to keep taking jump shots (he said Jennings put up more than 30,000 while he was in Europe) and he would need to get stronger in the NBA. But he cautioned not to read too much into Jennings’ struggles in Europe.
“I promise you. If you brought LeBron James over from high school straight to Europe, we would have messed him up,” Trajkovic said. “We demand different things. It is not enough to do something. You must do it correctly. Everyone who comes, young or old, from America, has to adjust. He was able to do it better than most I have seen. One more year in Europe, and he would be a star. I don’t know if the NBA feels the same way.”
Jennings should find out soon. His agent, Bill Duffy, said Jennings will begin team workouts this week. He’s targeting four teams at the moment: the Kings (No. 4), Wizards (No. 5), Wolves (No. 6), Warriors (No. 7) and Knicks (No. 8). If Jennings doesn’t get the positive feedback he’s looking for, he’ll backfill with a few more later lottery teams like the Bucks, Pacers and Suns.
If just one GM in the top 10 falls in love, Jennings will look like a genius. He skipped the college basketball factory, earned millions of dollars and still found his way into the lottery. If he falls, he may close the door to other prospects searching to do the same thing.
That’s a lot of pressure and responsibility for a 19-year-old. But if Jennings handles things as well as he did in Europe, he may be more prophet than fool.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com.