Brandon Jennings probably isn’t wandering rural Wisconsin with an overgrown beard and a forlorn look on his face, but that’s how I imagine him. He’s wearing a suit that was crisp and slim-fitting a few weeks ago, but has since become torn at the knee and ringed with sweat-salt around the collar and armpits. He’s given up on checking his long-dead cell phone for texts from his agent and is now just skulking towards nowhere in particular in a straight line, through cornfields and waist-high rivers. Brandon Jennings could really use a contract offer, you guys.
A few years ago, Jennings was saying the sorts of noncommittal things athletes say when they’re not thrilled about their surroundings but don’t want to completely alienate fans. (In the fall of 2010, Chris Broussard wrote about Jennings hinting at some day forming a superteam with Steph Curry and Tyreke Evans. In hindsight, that hypothetical team would be not at all super.) When Jennings was implying that he might test the free agent market in the somewhat distant future, he was coming off the heels of a promising rookie season in which he shot the ball horribly but scored a lot and was really entertaining to watch. His problem is that he’s never improved markedly on his first impression, and it seems like he is now, entering his fifth season, simply a stylish point guard who misses a lot of shots. I actually enjoy watching him quite a bit, but then I’m not a Bucks fan. It’s easier to be fascinated by a player when he’s not actively killing your favorite team’s chances of winning.
I keep comparing Jennings to Stephon Marbury in my head, though Basketball Reference is telling me I should rethink that comparison because Marbury, even at his chuckingest, was a much better distributor than Jennings. (Though Jennings gets bonus points for not being a complete lunatic.) Perhaps I conceive of Jennings as Starbury’s spiritual successor because they’re both tragic figures, in a way. I liked watching Marbury for the same reasons I like watching Jennings — 45-point or 17-assist performances all at once come out of nowhere — but both play the game in an exuberant, ultimately ineffectual fashion. They are entertainers, always trying to do cool things for the sake of doing them, but when entertainment and irrational self-belief become the tenets of player’s game, he usually fails. Marbury had a transient career starring for teams that were either on the edge or firmly out of playoff contention. This And1 ad is a curiously apt summary of his mindset: “I don’t play games, I don’t negotiate… I ball.”
You want to believe in that sort of brashness, but even the most talented player has to eventually sacrifice some part of his vanity in service of efficiency. Put another way: At some point, you have to choose between step-back 19-footers and winning basketball games.
Marbury, at least, got paid skyscraper-sized stacks of money to put up 16 shots a game on middling teams. The list of well-compensated players who scored a lot and didn’t shoot well isn’t short. My personal not-favorite is Larry Hughes, who got paid $70 million over five years to brick shots for the Cavs and inspired a hilariously infuriated fan to register the domain name HeyLarryHughesPleaseStopTakingSoManyBadShots.com.
Unfortunately for Brandon Jennings, it’s not 2005. It’s not even 2010, when the Memphis Grizzlies signed volume scorer and apparently half-blind person Rudy Gay to a five-year, $82 million deal. Jennings isn’t as good as Larry Hughes was or Rudy Gay is, but he can’t even finagle anything more than a $4.5 million qualifying bid from Milwaukee, who seem rather reluctant to even extend the offer. This is because, as SBNation’s Kevin Zimmerman explains, his shooting numbers compare unfavorably with the thoroughly mediocre Ramon Sessions. GMs are not, as they might have been a few years ago, impressed by his point totals; they’re scrutinizing how many and what sorts of shots he takes in order to get there.
This is good news for whatever NBA fanbase would have undoubtedly hated watching Jennings clank overly difficult jumpers for $8 million per year, but bad news for Jennings, who is a man without a league. This makes him someone to root for if you value idiosyncrasy and adventurousness in your athletes, but it’s also makes him a shaky investment. He might yet transcend what he has become over the first four years in the league, but he’ll have to revivify his career while making the sort of money he would have scoffed at a couple offseasons ago. The score-first point guard who can’t shoot, like the no-offense big man or the small forward who can’t guard anyone, is being driven to the margins of NBA relevancy. For better or for worse, players as inconsistently electric as Jennings scarcely matter anymore.