When things are going good, when the running layups are rolling in, when your teammates are hitting the bunnies, the game looks easy for a point guard. Right now is not one of those times for Brandon Jennings, whose Bucks are 5-10 and in the Central Division cellar, not a place anybody expected the Bucks to visit this season.
But the good times are like ESPN highlights — they don’t define good teams. And they don’t define great point guards.
The Bucks, last in the NBA in shooting and scoring, need their second year point guard to be great. “Good” — which Jennings was with 25 pts and six assists in the Bucks 103-89 loss in Detroit Friday — won’t cut it, not when the Bucks are playing without their anchor, Andrew Bogut, sidelined with back spasms. Not when the coach has complained that some of the new players don’t seem to know the plays.
In addition to everything else Bogut does, the Bucks center is vocal about holding his teammates accountable, both on offense sets and defense. This now falls to Jennings, who hasn’t found reliable offensive options all season long. He’s missing John Salmons, who’s been sluggish in recovering from a strained knee. He misses veteran point guard Luke Ridnour (gone to Minnesota) who brought energy, movement and good shooting off the Bucks bench last season. And yes, he misses Charlie Bell (traded to Golden State), who didn’t do much himself on offense but hit the spot-up 3 when called upon, yet Charlie knew where he was supposed to be and where each play was supposed to go.
Those veteran guards, Ridnour and Bell, who had spent a long 2008-09 season learning the Skiles style, were indispensable to Jennings in his rookie season. They had also adopted their coach’s never-say-die mentality, an intangible that, perhaps for the first time this season, disappeared when the shots didn’t fall against the hot-handed Pistons. The Bucks, the team that never quits, eventually “disengaged” in the 3rd quarter.
“We’ve got to stay positive; that’s the main thing. Everybody can’t just go on their own. We’ve got to stay engaged and stay with what we do best. It starts on the defensive end, and the offense will come. We got wherever we wanted to tonight. We’ve just got to finish it.” — Jennings in last night’s post game comments.
There’s trouble in the words, “everyone can’t just go on their own,” and Jennings seems to have realized it. In the absence of Bogut, he’s the guy who has to make sure the Bucks don’t splinter, don’t “go on their own.” An average NBA point guard might go with the flow and hope his teammates step up “on their own.” A great NBA point guard takes control of the game, attacks the opposition and demands that his teammates play to his energy level, win or lose, whether the shots fall or not.
It’s a lot to ask of a 21-year-old who’s played in just 97 regular season NBA games. But then Jennings never set out to be average, nor has he been willing to settle for “good.” For the Bucks sake, he can’t. They are a team struggling to find an identity even as their young point guard learns and defines his own NBA identity. Ready or not 16 games into the season, the Bucks are a team that needs Brandon Jennings to be great.