Aiming for Something Better Out of Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks

Jan 30, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings (3) shoots over Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) during the third quarter at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucks will make a huge decision this week: keeping or shipping out Brandon Jennings. General manager John Hammond must figure out what to do with the restricted-free-agent-to-be. Despite Jennings’ rumored interest in bigger markets, the Bucks ultimately control their own destiny in the choice, at least for one summer, provided that they are willing to match the offers that come Jennings’ way.

But should they be willing to pay a premium for Jennings? Is he worth it? The short answer is ‘no’.

As long as he struggles to cross the 40% FG threshold, Jennings can’t possibly be worth that much money. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the decision isn’t really about how good he is today. It’s about how good he’ll be in two or three years.

What are the things that Jennings is good at?  What is he bad at? Will he get better over time?

Let’s start with the plusses.  I would claim that Jennings has a knack for disrupting the dribble of opposing point guards, while rarely allowing those opponents to mess with his own handle.  With Jennings on the floor, the Bucks are much more likely to force a turnover than to turn it over themselves.

Jennings is subtly improving as a passer too.  He has shared ballhandling duties with Monta Ellis over the past 82 or so games far more than he did with any other Bucks’ shooting guard.  Despite the decrease in opportunities, his assist totals and percentages are actually rising compared with the previous two season.  While far from perfect — most notably on drive-and-kick opportunities — Jennings isn’t a total bust of a passer or one worthy of a blindly applied “selfish” label.

He is also fast.  If the Bucks want to play up-tempo with Jennings, they can.

So what is Jennings bad at?  I claim that is can be distilled down to two things — two very important things.  For one, Jennings is 6’1″ going on 5’11.5″.  He may be listed on the right side of six feet in the media guide, but in reality, he isn’t.  And it sucks to be that tall in a league dominated by players who can reach nine-and-a-half feet into the air without leaving their feet, especially in the paint.  With Jennings as a defender, taller point guards can find their shots just a little bit more easily when Jennings is guarding them.  He may bother their dribbles with quick hands and fast feet, but he can’t contest their shots much either.

The other factor is Jennings’ inability to make shots with regularity from the paint.  It may be worse than you think, and it’s not unrelated to him being small — even by point guard standards.

When the NBA’s players reconvene after each summer, and the media chat up each player on how they improved their games in the offseason, Jennings usually mentions his work on improving off hand/right hand.  And yet, like the “five to ten pounds of muscle” players invariably report in similar stories (Jennings claimed he went from 175 to 190 pounds last summer), Brandon’s right hand never actually gets better.  He still relies far too much on his left hand, and defenders invariably predict him to go that way.

This summer, though, there was a new twist — and one with a visible result.

“I perfected the Steve Nash shot. I love it. It’s like my go-to move, you just can’t stop it.”

Specifically, Jennings worked on the one-legged, leaning back floater that Steve Nash uses when he drives but doesn’t want to take the ball into the teeth of a defense.

Jennings flashed this type of shot in the preseason and the first month of the regular season with strong results, especially for a shot he had just learned.

Then gradually these shots went away and in their place sat a bunch of ill-conceived shots that for lack of a better term I’ll call “fast flips”.  These shots are the ones where Jennings drives (usually in one gear, ‘fastest’), finds himself too far in the paint, and flips up a left-handed floater without regard for aim or touch.

The results have gotten worse over time.  In 2013 (i.e., since Jan. 1), Jennings is 6-for-37 FG (16%) on shots three to nine feet from the rim (per hoopdata.com).  And for the season, Jennings has made roughly 43% of his shots in the paint (from Vorped.com).

 

35.1% is a productive percentage given the added value of three-point shot, and 39% isn’t a terrible mark for the long two-pointer, basketball’s most inefficient shot.  Jennings really does shoot a gorgeous outside shot, especially when he holds back on his tendency to lean one way or the other.

Don’t be fooled by the colors here.  It’s the 43.3% that is an atrocity.

For the sake of reference, Chris Paul (60%), Tony Parker (59%), Steve Nash (57%), Ty Lawson (51%), Kyrie Irving (50%) and even Brandon’s favorite All-Star/long-term contract holder, Jrue Holiday (49%), shoot much higher percentages than Jennings in the painted area.   Forget the studs.  Jennings also trails other starting point guards like Greivis Vasquez (46%), Jeremy Lin (51%), Brandon Knight (46%), Darren Collison (54%), Isaiah Thomas (55%), and Kemba Walker (55%)

Jennings is literally the worst starting point guard in the NBA at converting shots from close range.  Does that scream anything near a max deal to you?  Until he gets better scoring at and around the rim, Jennings cannot make good on any high-priced, long-term contract.

What can Jennings do to make this issue go away?  A lot of it comes down to finding the time to square up and aim the shot, even if that only means getting his elbow and arm aligned in a passable shooting position.

For starters, bring back the Nash shot.  It can’t make anything worse than it already is.  Really.

Along those same lines, Brandon should make the decision on taking a floater earlier in the process of driving to the hoop. If he figures it out a few tenths of a second sooner, then he can take the shot back near the free throw line while using the added space to frame the shot better.

Lastly — and this part may seem crazy to just about everyone — Jennings needs to get his shot blocked more often. Not because getting swatted is inherently productive in its own right, but because getting blocked shows that he is taking the time to aim.  Point guards far better than Jennings — Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving, to name a few — get their shots blocked at a higher rate than Brandon.  But they also convert those shots with much greater frequency than Jennings.  On a playground, getting stuffed is the lowest form of embarassment, but in the NBA the lowest feat should be a routine string of 7-for-23 shooting nights.

As an enthusiast of Milwaukee Bucks basketball, I can safely say, “Been there, done that.”

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