I don’t often pay attention to player proclamations over the summer. They rarely match the absurdity of the annual “fifteen pounds of muscle” parade, but they, like Big Baby’s breezy 25 pound summer weight loss program of 2009 or Hassan Whiteside’s equally ridiculous 25 pound muscle gain of 2010, regularly fail to come to fruition.
It was tempting then to write off Brandon Jennings’ offseason comments to this same quixotism, the goals undoubtedly sincere but the means a touch fantastic. Jennings talked of his desire to moderate the only plus shot in his arsenal – the three – while professing an affinity for the pull-up jumper. His vague nods towards “getting in the lane” where he might then proceed to “make things happen” simply added to the overall sense of hazily misguided generalization. Brandon Jennings wanted to be better at basketball, but then didn’t we all.
That he fell hilariously short of his 2010 goal of 10 assists a night didn’t help matters. As it turned out, only two starting point guards averaged fewer assists per game than Jennings. And it was another highly specific prediction this past summer that made for more intrigue:
[S]ince the lockout, I’ve been in Baltimore working for 3 months straight. I’m going to shoot over 40% this year. This whole three months of the lockout, I’ve been working out 5 days a week in Baltimore.
Of the 150 players that started at least half of all games last season, 10 shot below 40%. Thus, Jennings’ goal was to become one of the myriad not-worst-ten-shooters-in-basketball. These were the most insignificant of potatoes, certifiable foux du fafa. And it’s exactly why this was a summer proclamation at least moderately worth monitoring.
Jennings wasn’t magically sprouting juiced biceps or transforming into an evolutionary Steve Nash. He was simply a terrible shooter acknowledging he was a terrible shooter, setting, unlike the majority of media and his peers, a not at all terrible goal.
A month into the season, Jennings has done a lot more than simply avoid terrible floor percentages; he’s been one of basketball’s more efficient, high usage scorers. Here he is, charted against NBA point guards at usage rates 25% or higher. “Offensive efficiency” is a reflection of a player’s offensive points produced per 100 possessions differential from league average for the year. All player stats are from the 2011-2012 season, excepting Jennings’ numbers for 2009-2011, as noted:
Jennings upward trajectory in 2012 is unmistakable. Coupled with league-wide offense falling off a cliff following the lockout, his individual improvement has caused an explosion in his overall efficiency differential. Its sustainability is, of course, the immediate first question. Jennings’ first 145 games should rightly take precedence over his last 20, but positive signs abound.
Jennings’ long-2 percentage (in terms of total field goal attempts), at 24.3% during his rookie year and 19.7% a year ago, is down to 17.9% with a corresponding rise in 3s-attempted percentage – 31.8% to 32.7% to 35.3%. He’s a player that loves to shoot the basketball, and while his tendency to settle will not go without critique, moving more of his long jumpers behind the arc is unequivocally a smart decision. On the other end, both his ability to finish (61.5% from 51% and 42% in 2011 and 2010) and the frequency of his attempts at the rim (29.5% from 27.2% and 23.6% in ’11 and ’10) have been up as well, partially a result of the Bucks’ inclusion of more off-ball plays for Jennings and their increased reliance on transition.
As you might expect, the coalescence of these advances has vaulted Jennings easily past his modest goal. By both pure and effective field goal percentage, he shoots about as well as anyone in the above graphic, save the precocious Kyrie Irving. Even as his midrange game has stayed largely static, the ends of the range spectrum have driven him, at long last and at least for the time being, away from the blasé mediocrity that defined his first two seasons.
The new Brandon Jennings, though, isn’t so much a different Brandon Jennings. The playmaking shortcomings, the inability to consistently create for his admittedly middling teammates, the proclivity to routinely lean shot over pass all still exist. Jennings has simply coupled his shoot-first, question-why-I-shoot-sub-40% later existence with, for the first time, efficiency.
For a team whose identity, given health, is firmly predicated on the defensive abilities of Andrew Bogut and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the presence of any type of efficient offensive production, whether individual or team-oriented, has to be considered a positive. If Jennings can continue to sustain this level of play, Milwaukee’s next task becomes identifying the viability of constructing an efficient offense around a combo guard.
It’s not the easiest of questions to answer, even if there’s evidence it can be done. That it’s a question worth considering at all though should be heartening in itself.