The Milwaukee Bucks brought back a blast from the past, signing former point guard Brandon Jennings. Can he help this team regain its footing?
The Milwaukee Bucks have been hit hard by the second-tier injury bug. While many other teams in the league have seen stars go do to injury, the Bucks’ core players have stayed mostly healthy. It’s the rest of their rotation that has been ravaged by numerous ailments.
One key point of impact has been the backcourt, where the Bucks have lost both of their bench guards. Malcolm Brogdon, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has missed 21 games and counting while recovering from a torn quadricep. Matthew Dellavedova, the starter for much of last season, has been out since early February with a severely sprained ankle, and the team currently has no timetable for his return.
Milwaukee has rotated a number of options behind Eric Bledsoe and Tony Snell in the starting lineup. A 40 year-old Jason Terry has averaged 23 minutes per game in March and 18.3 since Feb. 1 in 16 games, after averaging just 10.7 in 20 games in the prior three and a half months of the season. Second round pick Sterling Brown has been a huge boon as a rookie, but can only fill one hole on the bench as a backup 2 or 3.
This problem has been part of the explanation for Milwaukee’s recent struggles. Although they started the Joe Prunty era off with a bang, the Bucks are just 4-7 in their last 11 games. Coming out of the All-Star break they have been flat, with a net rating 3.5 points worse than the rest of their season. Milwaukee needed to figure something out.
Jon Horst and the organization found their solution to this need in the G League, where the Wisconsin Herd had recently signed former Milwaukee point guard Brandon Jennings to a 10-day contract. Jennings played 291 games in four seasons for the Bucks after they selected him 10th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft.
For his career, Jennings has been a score-first guard, capable of scoring in bunches with a streaky jump shot that ran hot-and-cold. Arguably the best moment of his career was when he dropped 55 points during his rookie season against the Golden State Warriors in November of 2009. It was just his seventh game in the NBA.
He was a dynamic offensive threat while in Milwaukee, never averaging fewer than 15 points per game. In his rookie season he earned First Team All-Rookie honors. In his fourth season the Bucks made the playoffs as the 8-seed after making an in-season trade for J.J. Redick, and Jennings famously boasted that the Bucks would not only pull the upset, but “win in six” over LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
In July of 2013, the Bucks moved Jennings to Detroit in a trade that brought Brandon Knight and Khris Middleton to Milwaukee. Middleton has established himself as a near-All-Star for the Bucks, while Knight was flipped for Michael Carter-Williams, who was then flipped for Tony Snell, who is starting. The Bucks certainly got their value out of Jennings in that deal, and now he has come full-circle and made his way back to the team.
Since leaving the Bucks, Jennings has failed to match his Milwaukee levels of production. Jennings lasted 144 games on the Pistons before Detroit moved him to the Orlando Magic after acquiring Reggie Jackson. Jennings then bounced around the Eastern seaboard, playing a total of 106 games for the Magic, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards over the next 18 months.
After providing the Wizards little help in their postseason run last season, Jennings appeared to be without a place in the league this summer. He went overseas and played for the Shanxi Brave Dragons in China, where he followed in the footsteps of many former NBA-guards in lighting up the competition. He returned early from China, looking for a way back into the league.
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When the Wisconsin Herd signed Jennings, his NBA career appeared to be running on fumes. But he was energized playing back in Wisconsin, and he put up per-game averages of 19.8 points, 7.3 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals in six games on the Herd.
The Bucks will now look to see if Jennings has anything left in the tank, as they could desperately use creation off of the dribble on their second unit. Terry no longer has the wheels to beat opponents off the bounce, and Brown is a tertiary ball-handler, not a primary one.
Brandon Jennings’ best skill has been taking shots, filling up the stat sheet with shot attempts and, generally, shot makes. He has kept up a high level of assists as well, averaging 6.1 assists per game through the first six seasons of his career before his playing time began to be cut short. He is also adept at picking pockets, ranking average or better in steals among point guards while limiting his fouls.
Jennings’ biggest weakness is his inefficiency. While always boasting a large usage rate, his points-per-possession on shot attempts was no worse than average even at his peak, and multiple times has slipped into the bottom fifth at the position. As his other tools waned, his shooting became more of a death sentence.
In Jennings’ first game back, he announced himself as an NBA player once more. Jennings dropped 16 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and three triples in just under 24 minutes Monday night. While the Bucks were only playing the Memphis Grizzlies, losers of 18 straight games, Jennings was still able to show that he can hold his own against NBA competition.
Suggesting that Jennings is suddenly a starting-level player is simply not true, but any nights where he can contribute as he did Monday will be a significant boon to this team as it jockeys for playoff positioning down the stretch without Brogdon or Dellavedova.
Signing Jennings to a 10-day contract did come at a price, as the team announced it was waiving backup stretch-4 Mirza Teletovic. This likely signals that Teletovic, struggling with pulmonary emboli, could be heading toward a medical retirement.
The team is going to lean on Jennings as much as it can over the next week, squeezing every bit of value out of his 10-day contract. Then the team can make a decision informed by the progress of Brogdon and Dellavedova and how much longer Jennings needs to stay aboard. The better he plays, the more likely he is to stay on the roster.
In the end, nothing an NBA team does to tweak its roster at this point in the season is likely to have a significant impact. The Bucks are not going to win the title because of Brandon Jennings, but his return does signal that the Bucks are going to use every available resource and option to improve their team and win basketball games.
With games against the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks coming up, Jennings could thrive against backup backcourts marginally better than some G League setups. Every point he scores or dime he dishes is a weight added to the ledger. His goal is to prove to the league that he still belongs, and he has just days left to do so.
The Bucks will enjoy every minute of it, rooting for their former star rookie and for what he represents. Finding talent isn’t just about evaluating teenagers, but finding the precious metals discarded by the rest of the league. Can Brandon Jennings truly be a diamond in the rough?