The skinny kid with the funky hair and freakish handle was known as trouble a year ago, an immature teenager outcast by the American college basketball system because he couldn’t cut it academically.
Now, Brandon Jennings is looking like a trendsetter — and the next NBA Rookie of the Year. Jennings, Milwaukee’s wiry, 6-foot-1 point guard, has ripened into the talk of the league throughout this season’s first month. He enters tonight’s game against the Thunder ranked 10th in scoring at 23.4 points per game, dropping 55 points on Golden State seven games ago to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks record for most points in a game by a rookie. Though both the Bucks and the Thunder are off to surprisingly hot starts, it’s Jennings’ play that prompted ESPN to pick up tonight’s telecast. But it’s Jennings’ pioneering path to the NBA that has been the biggest shock regarding his success. Last year, Jennings became the first player to bypass college and play professional overseas as a result of the NBA’s age limit, which took effect in 2006 and shut off high school players from jumping directly to the NBA. Jennings’ early achievements have raised the question of whether future high school players will take their talents abroad rather than sacrifice lucrative contracts and endorsements for a one-and-done college career. A second prep phenom, Jeremy Tyler, already has followed in Jennings’ footsteps. Tyler, a San Diego native, skipped his senior season altogether and jetted overseas to play professionally in Israel. "I don’t think they’ll be the last ones,” said Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach Travis Ford. "But I don’t see a mass exodus with everybody headed over there. There’s too many good options. And I think most kids want to go to college, at least for a year.” Jennings was a highly rated recruit who had committed to play at Arizona. As a senior at prep power Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, the Los Angeles native averaged 32.7 points, 7.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds en route to the 2008 Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award. But after failing to pass college entrance exams, Jennings signed with the professional Italian team Lottomatica Virtus Roma in the summer of 2008. Still a month shy of his 19th birthday, Jennings earned a contract worth more than $1.5 million and an endorsement deal with the sports apparel company Under Armour for reportedly $2 million. But he faced hardships on the hardwood. Jennings fell prey to the European way, which puts experienced players ahead of young newcomers in the rotation, no matter the pups’ talent levels. Considering Jennings fell to the 10th pick in the draft, it’s debatable whether the European route helped his cause. College players with more hype like Hasheem Thabeet and Jordan Hill, and one highly touted international prospect, Ricky Rubio, were taken ahead of Jennings.