GM Jon Horst had been tracking the global basketball economy for weeks, and was ready to make his move when China’s CBA wrapped its season up on Monday. It’s just that nobody expected the Bucks Chinese import to be Brandon Jennings, the young Buck of the 2010 “Fear the Deer” season.
Mass confusion erupted Tuesday at General Mitchell Airport as Brandon Jennings strolled through the Far East gate, looking nothing at all like a 7-foot behemoth to fill the Bucks biggest need for the stretch run and playoffs. The ensuing near riot was a happy event, according to baggage handlers who witnessed it, as nine out of 10 Bucks fans agreed that having Jennings back in Wisconsin was a good thing, a very good thing indeed. He’s not a Buck yet, having signed with the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate in Oshkosh, but there’s at least some expectation he may soon be if all goes well in Oshkosh.
Jennings, went to China this season to clear his head, to hit the reset button at age 28 after bouncing around from Orlando to New York and Washington while trying to fully recover from a gruesome torn Achilles injury that derailed him in Detroit three years ago. It was a decision made quickly last summer after a disappointing playoffs with the Wizards, where his playing time dwindled and he averaged but 1 point and 1 assist per game in the 7-game series against Boston.
“I just packed my bags and I was gone,” he told USA Today upon returning to the U.S. earlier this month. Jennings’ Shanxi Brave Dragons didn’t make the Chinese Basketball Association playoffs, despite his 27.9 pts and 6.8 assists per game, but the experience helped him “grow up and mature and realize what was important in life,” he said. The interviewer didn’t ask what, specifically, was important because a discussion about the wonders of Chinese food ensued (Chinese is Jennings’ favorite food). Jennings said he was fully recovered from the injury and “back to the person that I was before I got hurt. the person that I was in Detroit.”
That person in Detroit was a very good NBA point guard, on the edge of being an All-star. The Pistons got off to a miserable 5-and-23 start to the 2014-15 season, losing 13 in a row at one point, until they waived madly individualistic power forward, Josh Smith. They gelled almost immediately after Smith exited, winning 12 out of the next 15 games. Jennings was brilliant during the Detroit winning streak, scoring 20 pts per game, dishing out 7.2 assists and shooting 40% from three. But Detroit’s winning ways and Jennings’ 2015 season ended abruptly in Milwaukee Jan. 24, when his Achilles tendon snapped as he tried to recover a steal by Brandon Knight under the Detroit basket.
Brandon Jennings, 15 games 12/26/14 to 01/21/15
He made it back in 2016, but his starting point guard job had been handed over to Reggie Jackson, who enjoyed a good run in Jennings’ absence. The Pistons traded him in February of 2016 to Orlando in a swap of ex-Bucks — Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova for Tobias Harris. The move reunited Jennings and Ilyasova with Magic coach Scott Skiles, their coach for 3-and-a-half years in Milwaukee.
The reunion with Skiles was short-lived, however, thanks to the ill-fated player personnel schemes of Orlando GM Rob Hennigan, who had no plans to resign Jennings or exercise the team option on Ilyasova’s 2016-17 guarantee. A few weeks after the 2016 ended, Skiles abruptly quit the coaching job. A month later, Hennigan traded Ilyasova, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the OKC Thunder for Serge Ibaka, revealing what had prompted Skiles’ decision to walk. Ilyasova was left in contract limbo and, while sorting it out, missed the Turkish national team’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Jennings, meanwhile, signed a one-year, $4.83 million deal with the Knicks. The Magic, after a 29-win season in 2017, sacked Hennigan in April (and, weirdly enough, replaced him with John Hammond and Jeff Weltman, the guys who drafted Jennings for the Bucks in 2009).
Had Hennigan been competent and the Magic better employers, Jennings and Skiles would likely be in Orlando still, building on what they had begun in Milwaukee. Ilyasova, Oladipo and Sabonis? Who knows, but the success Oladipo and Sabonis are having this season in Indiana suggests that Skiles would have made things work in Orlando.
Jennings went on to New York, where he played back-up to Derrick Rose at point, bringing speed and highlight film passing off the bench, even if his shot hadn’t quite returned to pre-injury form. Jennings easily led the team in assist rate at 7.2 assists per 36, but the Knicks dropped out of the playoff hunt and bought Jennings’ contract out in late February, just in time for him to join the Wizards and back Wall up in the playoffs. His playing time steadily declined as the playoffs wore on. When the Wizards lost game 7 in Boston, they did so largely without Jennings, who played all of 5:40 in the game and didn’t attempt a shot.
“I went to China for myself – it was a personal decision,” Jenning explained to Jim Paschke, television voice of the Bucks, in an interview this week. (Watch full interview HERE.) “I just wanted to get away for a minute to focus and get my rhythm back to playing basketball.”
Just as his decision to sign with Shanxi was made quickly, all it took was a phone call from Wisconsin Herd GM Dave Dean to bring him back to Wisconsin. Dean asked if he wanted to come play, Jennings said “of course” and packed his bags again and flew to Milwaukee. His return may not even be part of any plan by the Bucks, and more the natural course of Brandon Jennings being Brandon Jennings, “world hooper”
Jennings can help the Bucks
Ever since Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas destroyed the Bucks in Milwaukee Jan. 5, scoring 20 points in one quarter against helpless Bucks centers John Henson and Thon Maker, the Bucks have been on the lookout for a defensive minded big man. They picked up Tyler Zeller from Brooklyn during Trade Deadline week, but Zeller’s more power forward than intimidating force in the paint. He wasn’t the solution to the big man problem, not with Andrew Bogut and Miroslav Raduljica and other free agent bigs out there.
But then the Bucks point guards broke. Malcolm Brogdon‘s left quad tendon tore apart (partially) in Minneapolis, sidelining him for 6 to 8 weeks. And a couple of days later, his backup, Matthew Dellavedova, sprained an ankle against the Nets in Brooklyn and won’t be back until after the All-Star break. The Bucks at point are down to Eric Bledsoe, whose chaotic dynamism is more suited to freelancing on the break or from the wings than running a half-court offense. There’s no guarantee Brogdon will make it back to playoff shape this season, no guarantee Dellavedova will step up, and suddenly the Bucks are very thin at point, a precarious position to be in this late in the season.
Jennings can help. He’s quicker than Brogdon or Delly and has a higher career assist rate — in his brief time with the Wizards, his regular season assist rate was a career high 10.4 per 36 minutes. His steals rate is also the highest of the three point guards, and he tends to get to the line more. Plus he has 50% more NBA experience than Delly or Brogdon combined.
What he is not is a reliable shooter, but then neither is Delly. Jennings’ three-point shooting tends to come and go in streaks, where he’s either putting on a show or getting frustrated by the misses. In Detroit, he shot progressively less and passed more as the team chemistry came together. The season of his injury, 2014-15, he was down to 13.2 shots per game, while scoring at the same 15 ppg rate. He averaged 15 pts and 7 assists per game through 121 games with the Pistons — before the Achilles injury. If he truly is back to the player he was then, he could help a number of teams. At age 28, he’s still in his basketball prime.
And who can forget the 55-point game in Jennings’ “Fear the Deer” rookie season?
Welcome back to Wisconsin, Brandon Jennings.