Botching the Italian Job: The case of Brandon Jennings

by Chad Ford

Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings is off to a torrid start, prompting the inevitable "What the heck were the [insert your lottery team here] thinking on draft night?" questions.

Considering that Jennings was ranked in the top five of our Top 100 draft prospects virtually all year, why did he slip to No. 10 in the 2009 draft?

I covered Jennings closely throughout the draft process and even took a trip to Italy to gather opinions from those who coached him overseas as well as those who watched him play.

The result was this in-depth story chronicling Jennings' year in Italy and the reaction he was getting from both NBA and international scouts.

In early June, there was anything but a consensus on what kind of NBA player he'd become, and NBA executives and scouts traveling to the Reebok Eurocamp were furious that Jennings was a last-minute scratch.

According to one veteran general manager:

"We all came to see whether this kid can really play. I'd heard the hype, watched the video and heard various opinions from my scouts. I wanted to see how he stacked up against other top kids his age. Then he doesn't show. He sure isn't making this easy on us. You want to like the kid, but he ain't giving you a lot to go on."

Meanwhile, some slammed him for poor shot selection and weak-decision making, and he was labeled an Allen Iverson type (for both good and bad). Others questioned whether he really matched up with other prospects.

Another NBA GM said:

"I'm not sure how you take a kid without a real body of work that high. I know this is a weak draft, but are we really taking kids who have struggled to produce in college or Europe in the lottery? I'm all for upside, but it's ridiculous. If Jennings can't get on the floor in Italy, how does he help my team in the next couple of years? How do you take him over some really talented college kids who have proven they can play? Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson, Steph Curry. Those guys are talented too and they have track records."

On the other hand, some felt he had been hampered by the system in Europe and thought he would be an outstanding NBA player. Particularly convincing was his development coach, Serbian legend Nenad Trajkovic:

"I promise you. If you brought LeBron James over from high school straight to Europe, we would have messed him up. We demand different things. It is not enough to do something. You must do it correctly. Everyone who comes, young or old, from America, has to adjust. He was able to do it better than most I have seen. One more year in Europe, and he would be a star. I don't know if the NBA feels the same way."

When Jennings returned to the U.S. for workouts, things took a downturn. Several GMs told me he struggled in workouts against some of the other top point guard prospects. Early on, Jennings performed badly on a psychological test administered by teams, though later it came to light that Jennings hadn't taken the test seriously and had just rushed through the answers. Still, the impression wasn't good. That plus some trash-talking and off-putting interviews led to a moment, just hours before the draft, when his agent, Bill Duffy, was concerned that Jennings might fall out of the lottery altogether.

The Grizzlies (2nd), Thunder (3rd), Warriors (7th) and Raptors (9th) weren't really in the hunt for a point guard. The Kings (4th) had ruled out Jennings after a shaky workout and were deciding between Tyreke Evans and Ricky Rubio. The Wolves (5th and 6th) were considering Jennings, but he was behind Jonny Flynn, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry on their board. The Knicks were set on taking Curry or Jordan Hill, whoever was left.

Duffy couldn't get a team to commit to Jennings and eventually decided to pull Jennings from the NBA green room to avoid a potential embarrasment.

Just hours before the draft, things started to turn Jennings' way. The Bucks had been on the fence between Jennings and Jrue Holiday. For much of the past month they had been leaning toward Holiday, but in the final 24 hours they began to have a change of heart.

"Jennings has so much upside," a Bucks source told me hours before the draft. "Sometimes you have to gamble a little. The great teams take calculated risks. I think we need to take a calculated risk."

Two hours later the Bucks jumped in head first and drafted him with the 10th pick.

Had they passed on him, he could've been in freefall. Neither the Nets (11th), the Bobcats (12th) nor the Pacers (13th) had him high on their board. The Suns did at No. 14, but if they had passed, he would have fallen into a murky situation, because the Suns were the lowest-drafting team he had worked out for.

So far Jennings is giving a lot of teams regrets for passing on him. How great would he have looked in a Kings uniform? Could he have become a cornerstone for the Knicks? You get the picture.

But two things to consider: First, the three games of an NBA season do not make a player's career; and second, on draft night, if you were the one with your job on the line, would you really have decided any differently?