Will Jennings serve as a test case for current preps?
Stephenson/Hamilton: Kelly Kline for ESPN.com; Sidney: Photo courtesy of Reebok
Jennings Blazing A Cross-continental Trail
By Christopher Lawlor
Before the former McDonald's All-American completes his first year as a teen professional, his every step will be dissected, documented and scrutinized. The notion that high school players can successfully jump into the professional basketball ranks is passť.
Prep phenoms such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard seamlessly transitioned into the NBA.
Following the 2005 NBA draft, the league rescinded the high school eligibility rule, forcing players to attend college for at least one year. Players must be one year removed from their high school graduating class (Jennings is eligible for the 2009 draft, but has not indicated whether he will enter).
Jennings, who prepped at powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., became a pioneer, circumventing the traditional route to the NBA by passing on a one-and-done year at the University of Arizona.
"Jennings was widely known as a top-five pick if he was able to jump out of high school," said Chad Ford, ESPN.com's NBA draft analyst.
After receiving intense scrutiny from the NCAA Clearinghouse in July -- there have been conflicting reports about whether or not he would have been eligible to play at Arizona -- Jennings signed with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma, a Rome-based club.
His jump to Europe seemed to spark foreign intrigue among elite high school players from the Class of 2009. Rumors swirled that seniors Lance Stephenson of Lincoln (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Renardo Sidney Jr. of Fairfax (Los Angeles) and Jordan Hamilton of Dominguez (Compton, Calif.), all ESPNU 100 players, are exploring their options.
"Point guards like Jennings have the ball in their ball hands and have the ability to showcase NBA teams their talent," Ford said. "The big guys might not have the same opportunity. European bigs are more skilled than Americans. They spread the floor, have a better handle and shoot the ball better.
"The American bigs play more of a power game."
This week a published report indicates Sidney is no longer interested in Europe.
"I haven't heard anything about Europe," said Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani of Sidney, No. 5 in the ESPNU 100.
For any player considering taking the Jennings route, there's a caveat: Heading to Europe could cost a teenage player several million dollars.
"If he doesn't perform well, he slips out of the lottery and into the 20s," said Paul Biancardi, ESPNU's national recruiting coordinator. "You drop out of the first round and there are no guaranteed contracts."
Only Hamilton -- a Texas recruit -- has committed to college. The early signing period commences Wednesday for a week. Hamilton remains loyal to the Longhorns, who have recruited him since his sophomore year at Dorsey High in Los Angeles.
"College is the best route for me," said Hamilton, who has spoken to Jennings about playing overseas. "My brother and mother believe staying here for college will best benefit my progress."
Sidney and Stephenson may sign with a college during the late period in April or on the dotted line with a professional club in Europe.
Sidney, a Mississippi native, has taken unofficial visits to USC, UCLA and Mississippi State, and will take a fourth at Virginia this weekend. The Virginia visit indicates Sidney is looking to make an impact similar to Michael Beasley's at Kansas State.
Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive and grassroots guru, was approached by Jennings for counsel before signing overseas. Vaccaro said he's had conversations with several unnamed high school players and their parents about pro opportunities abroad. Vaccaro feels some players from the Class of 2009 will follow Jennings' lead overseas.
"I was honored when he [Jennings] approached me with this idea," said Vaccaro. "Brandon was reacting to a situation at Arizona and felt he could make a living playing basketball and get better at it.
Alice Knox, Jennings's mother, has sage parental advice.
"If it's about the money don't come over here," she said via telephone from Rome. "You come here to learn and get better, let the coaches work with you. The European players and coaches expect Americans to work harder; the coaches won't kiss your butt."
Typically Pallacanestro Virtus conducts two daily workouts -- the morning one emphasizes strength and conditioning and evenings are reserved for intense court workouts -- leaving Jennings with little downtime. The team plays two games per week, including games in the ultracompetitive Euroleague, a topflight competition which groups the elite European club teams from 13 different countries.
Jennings isn't alone. His mother and younger brother, Terrence, are there for support. The family's presence is crucial.
"Brandon came home from a five-day road trip Sunday afternoon and told us how much he missed us," Knox said. "A player out of high school needs a parent present for support. He's in a foreign country; this isn't home, things are different."
Jennings, who grew up in Southern California, attended Dominguez High in Compton for two years before transferring to settle his game and bolster his grades. He is the third Oak Hill player to bypass college for the pros. The first two -- DeSagana Diop (2001) and 6-9 Josh Smith (2004) -- both went in the first round of the NBA draft.
Unlike his predecessors at the southwestern Virginia boarding school, Jennings did not have the NBA as an option. Instead he took a leap of faith last summer when he opted to launch his professional career in Italy.
Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said circumstances differ with each player -- although he noted all three players secured guaranteed contracts, with Jennings reportedly earning more than $1 million per year and getting a shoe deal with Under Armour.
"DeSagana [Diop] was projected to go before any of the college seniors at his position and Josh [Smith] signed with Indiana but his father figured it was better to get paid to polish his game," said Smith.
"Brandon's situation was different. His decision is looking good now because of the coaching situation at Arizona and players are starting to renege on their commitments."
For Sidney, the thought of turning pro would come with two conditions.
"Renardo would have to learn to play with more intensity and change his dietary habits," Biancardi said. "He has a real feel for the game and great skills for a big man."
At 6-feet-10, 257 pounds, Sidney has battled weight issues -- reportedly he ballooned to nearly 300 pounds -- but he has dropped more than 40 pounds as his senior season approaches.
"He's more agile this year," said Kitani. "Renardo is a gifted offensive player who can score from anywhere on the floor. He's improved on his footwork and post moves. He's as talented as some grown men."
Sidney averaged 23.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and four assists as a junior and his unselfish play did not go unnoticed.
Jennings, the consummate playmaker, also possesses a high level of maturity, belying his age. Although he averages only 5 points and 3 assists for Pallacanestro Virtus -- far below his senior year numbers -- Jennings has seen his minutes per game steadily increase.
"[High school] players are usually physically ready if they decide to bypass college," Smith said. "But are they mentally tough enough to handle 82 games? Then there's the question of making the right decision. Whom do you hang out with? Are you growing as a person? Can you handle it as an 18-year-old on your own in most cases?
"It's quite a life-altering decision."
Vaccaro believes his star pupil from ABCD Camp days is a surefire "lottery pick" in June.
Ford maintains the jury's out, at least for now.
"If he [Jennings] does well, meaning he's a top-five draft pick, we'll see more and more [high school kids] go. They'll have the allure of an NBA-type lifestyle and the finances," he said.
Burning Recruiting Questions
Less than a year ago, Tom Crean was leading his Marquette squad to yet another outstanding season and an NCAA tournament bid. Now he is trying to restore one of the elite programs in college basketball: the University of Indiana. If his recruiting efforts are any indication as to where the Hoosiers are headed, the Indiana faithful should be very excited.
Crean has put together a top-notch group of Class of 2009 recruits. The class has a trio of future standouts in SF Christian Watford (Shades Valley, Ala.), SG Maurice Creek (Chatham, Va./Hargrave Military Academy) and C Bawa Muniru (Central Park, Ala.). In addition, the class has a ton of depth in 6-8 forwards Bobby Capobianco (Loveland, Ohio) and Derek Elston (Tipton, Ind.) and guard Jordan Hulls (Bloomington South, Ind.).
The Golden Eagles' class is led by outstanding point-guard prospect Junior Cadougan (Humble, Texas/Christian Life). In addition, Williams has lured two outstanding wing prospects in Jeronne Maymon (Madison, Wis./James Madison) and Erik Williams (Cypress Springs, Texas).
Although Crean and Williams have received most of the notoriety, other coaches in relatively new positions are making noise. Oklahoma State's Travis Ford, Santa Clara's Kerry Keating and Loyola Marymount's Bill Bayno have done particularly impressive work on the recruiting trail in recent months.
Meet Noel JohnsonWhen Andre Flynn first saw Noel Johnson play basketball, he could hardly believe the kid was only in the seventh grade.
"He was tall, but he could handle the ball like a point guard," says Flynn, the eighth-year head coach at Fayette County (Fayetteville, Ga.). "His basketball IQ was way ahead of everyone else's. When he was double-teamed, he'd hit the open man, but boy could he shoot the ball."
Five years later, those same qualities have made Johnson, a USC-bound senior swingman at Fayette County, the No. 53-ranked player in the ESPNU 100 and Georgia's most dangerous perimeter scorer.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson has always been at the head of his basketball class. He grew up with the game in a way few have.
Texas Commit Jordan Hamilton
On The Trail
Oklahoma State gets Johnson
ESPNU 100 prospect Karron Johnson of Mt. Zion Christian Academy (Durham, N.C.), ranked No. 57 overall and No. 20 among Class of 2009 power forwards, has chosen Oklahoma State. The 6-foot-7 Johnson picked the Cowboys of the Big 12 over Memphis and Seton Hall.
"Coach Travis Ford has added another nationally rated recruit to his Oklahoma State program with the commitment on Wednesday by Karron Johnson," said ESPN.com's recruiting director Bob Gibbons. "Johnson is an exceptionally gifted, multitalented athlete, with the abilities to score effectively from inside or outside. He has accurate perimeter shooting range, and is explosive slashing to the hoop. He uses his strength and athleticism to be an outstanding rebounder and physical power player and is likely to play at the power forward position for the Cowboys."
Johnson must learn to control his behavior on and off the court before he arrives in Stillwater.
"Johnson has had some past off-the-court issues and despite his basketball talents could be a 'high-maintenance' individual," Gibbons said. "Hopefully, those situations are in the past.
"Reportedly, Oklahoma State was the first school to offer him and Cowboys assistant coach Butch Pierre first got to know Johnson when he was enrolled at Patterson School [Lenoir, N.C.], with then LSU commit 7-0 C James Tyler," Gibbons continued. "Both were subsequently dismissed from Patterson and relocated to Mt. Zion. Pierre was the point man in the Cowboys' recruitment of Johnson."
Gibbons sees this as a huge get for new head coach Travis Ford and his staff.
"He has the basketball talent and abilities to be a major impact player in the Big 12," he said. "It will be interesting to watch his progression."
Brown set for Stanford
Rated No. 41 nationally among small forwards, Andy Brown of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) has given a Class of 2009 commitment to first-year coach Johnny Dawkins and Stanford. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Brown, the first recruit for Dawkins, also considered Arizona and the University of San Diego. Among his other offers were Michigan, Utah, SMU, Santa Clara and UC Santa Barbara.
ESPN.com recruiting coordinator Joel Francisco breaks down this commitment.
"Brown is the prototypical glue type for the Division I level," Francisco said. "Although David and Travis Wear had solid junior campaigns, it can be argued that Brown was Mater Dei's best player for most of the year, as the Monarchs captured another state championship."
Francisco compares Brown to a current NBA player.
"Brown -- think a poor man's Luke Walton -- has a tremendous amount of savvy for the game and a solid jump shot out to the stripe, even though he is much more effective at the elbow," he said. "He isn't going to wow you with athleticism, but his high basketball IQ makes up for his lack of bounce and quickness."
Expect Brown to play a nice role for the Cardinal.
"Andy should have a solid career, but it's imperative that Johnny Dawkins attracts some high-major talent to Palo Alto because Brown isn't a go-to type of talent," concluded Francisco.