The Brandon Jennings hype train is real; coming soon to Penn Station.
About a week ago, ESPN writer Zach Lowe made a pretty crazy prediction. In fact, he made 30 of them (it was kinda the theme of the article). One of these predictions, however, wasn't as ridiculous as it first implied; that Brandon Jennings, backup point guard for the Knicks, would start at least 30 games in the 2016-17 NBA season. In his own words:
"The Jennings hype train is careening a little out of control. New York fans chanted his name during a preseason game on Monday! A preseason game! He shot just 37 percent and barely got to the rim in his first season back from an Achilles tear. He is a glaring minus at the top of any defence.
So is Derrick Rose -- or at least the version of Rose from most of the past four seasons. Rose hasn't played more than 66 games since 2010-11, and he's a much worse shooter than Jennings from distance. Jennings isn't Steph Curry, but he's about league average from deep, comfortable launching off the bounce on the pick-and-roll -- a must-have skill for the amped-up, non-triangular stuff coach Jeff Hornacek wants to run."
You know what Zach, fair enough. I really can't argue with facts when, in 4 pre-season games, Jennings is averaging 7.5 points per game with a fairly dreck field goal percentage of 38% (for reference, average NBA guard sits at around 45%). It's easy to claim this is a result of off-season rust, but the truth is Jennings has never been a stalwart of efficiency. Even in his best season scoring-wise (2011-12, where he averaged 19.1 ppg), he put up 17 shots a game and made just over 7 of them. Jennings has always shot like a Death Star stormtrooper; inaccurately, and often.
But it isn't Jennings' lacklustre shooting ability that has Knicks fans in a mad lather. Actually, it's two things. The first is his abilities as a playmaker. While Jennings' reputation as a trigger-happy point guard is probably well-deserved, he doesn't get nearly enough credit for consistently finding his teammates with accurate passes. While slashing to the rim, he'll hold onto the ball just long enough to attract a second defender, at which point he'll deftly sling the rock to a now-open man for an easy 2 points.
Another favourite Jennings move we've been treated to in this preseason is his use of behind-the-back fakes. Similar to the Rondo fake, in this play Jennings runs the fast break with team-mates Kyle O'Quinn and Justin Holiday in tow, and meeting them on the opposite side of the court are Celtics Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. Just past the three-point arc, Jennings fakes a behind-the-back pass to Holiday which in turn causes Crowder to hedge off him a little. He then uses this new-found space to find O'Quinn for an easy dish, and the crowd audibly "oooh"'s.
Maybe it's because some basketball dinosaurs still believe point guards aren't supposed to score, but Jennings' ability to run an offense often seems buried under the sheer amount of criticism he gets for being an inefficient shooter. I mean, this is the same guy who recorded a 24-point, 21-assist game as a member of the Detroit Pistons in a January 2015 win against the Orlando Magic, becoming the first guy since Steve Goddamn Nash to record a 20/20 back in 2009.
The second reason why none of us want to get off Brandon Jennings' Wild Ride, is that we finally have someone with personality on the team. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that guys like Carmelo and Porzingis aren't interesting or incapable of spinning a decent conversation, but last season's team just seemed a little...dry? I don't know, maybe it was watching all those meandering Afflalo long-range 2's, but apart from the occasional Porzingis putback, there were very few catalysts for the Garden going bananas like they did for Brandon Jennings here:
Jennings scores off a wild floater, and immediately starts trash-talking Wizard guard Casper Ware. Wizards bring the ball back up, and Jennings commits an off-ball foul on Ware. They start staring each other down until the ref calls a double technical to break it up, with Jennings walking away STILL channelling the ghost of Gary Payton, sarcastically clapping and resembling a skinny bobblehead while jawing away. A couple of plays later, Jennings has the ball at the three-point arc with Ware defending him. He briefly toys with him, before burying a 3 right in his face. A WWE-style "BRAN-DON JENN-INGS, CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP" chant is his reward for a display of testicular fortitude arguably not seen at a Knicks home game since the Mason/Starks/Ewing teams of the 90's.
This is why I feel like Zach Lowe put the cart before the horse when he claimed that maybe Knicks fans were getting a little too excited at Jennings' antics. It wasn't so much that the fans were cheering on Jennings just because he made a few nice dribbles and hit a shot in his opponent's face, but were cheering him because of everything that happened before that. They were thrilled at the prospect of having a player who was that competitive that he would get into his opponent's face during a freaking preseason game.
We haven't had a decent bench spark-plug since J.R. Smith, who won the Sixth-Man of the Year award back in 2013. And whereas Smith's decline in New York came from too many extra-curricular distractions, Jennings has given every indication that his mind is only on basketball. Upon signing him, Knicks president Phil Jackson challenged Jennings to win the Sixth-Man award, which apparently he has already embraced. There may come a time when I regret having said this, but for now, it's full steam ahead on this hype train.