Coming off a disappointing close to his 2016-17 season in which he struggled mightily with his shooting, playmaking and defensive work as John Wall’s backup with the Washington Wizards, Brandon Jennings found a chilly market when he hit unrestricted free agency last summer. Rather than waiting for a stateside suitor to emerge, the eight-year veteran chose to sign a deal to play in China; at the time, it seemed entirely possible that the pioneering, bucket-getting, Bucks-in-six’ing point guard’s time as an NBA player might be over.
But on Saturday, following a strong turn in China that saw him average nearly 28 points and seven assists a game for the Shanxi Brave Dragons, and a willing-to-take-the-scenic-route six-game stint with the Wisconsin Herd, the Milwaukee Bucks’ G-League affiliate, Jennings inked a 10-day contract to return to the Bucks, the team that chose him with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. And on Monday night, some 7 1/2 months after he headed overseas, Jennings made his return to live NBA action … and he balled out:
OK, so, calling it “live NBA action” is probably a touch charitable. The Bucks were, after all, squaring off against the Memphis Grizzlies, who, no kidding have not won a game since January. Still, when the 28-year-old Jennings took the court with 3:03 to go in the first quarter, making his first appearance in a Bucks uniform since April 28, 2013, he wasted little time making his presence felt. He drove and kicked. He pushed the pace in transition and pulled up for jumpers. He rinsed the Grizzlies in the pick-and-roll, getting deep into the paint off the bounce and feathering pocket passes through traffic to set up his big men for easy buckets.
It was about as warm a welcome as you could ask for on the road, as Jennings scored 11 points before halftime before finishing with 16 total, on 5-for-9 shooting. He’d add a sparkling 12 assists (against just two turnovers) and eight rebounds in 24 minutes of work off the bench, flirting with a triple-double in the first outing of his second stint in Wisconsin to help pace the Bucks to a 121-103 win that improved Milwaukee to 36-31, even with the seventh-seeded Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Bucks outscored the Grizz by 11 points in Jennings’ 24 minutes of work, and his injection of quickness and aggression seemed like a hand-in-glove fit for a Milwaukee team that can often struggle to develop and sustain offensive rhythm outside the confines of the magic that Giannis Antetokounmpo can create possession by possession:
Jennings's points of emphasis for the team made a lot of sense: push in transition and shoot a lot of threes. Can't remember hearing a message like that in a while.
— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) March 13, 2018
John Henson: "I don't think it's a question whether he can play in the NBA … On a ten day, for a guy like that to have that type of talent, it's rare."
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) March 13, 2018
Even so, that Jennings — who shot just 31.2 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from 3-point range during his time in the G-League — was able to hit the ground running so smoothly in his return seemed to catch just about everybody by surprise … including Jennings. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
“I was nervous,” Jennings said. “I felt like it was my first rookie game again. Just putting on that jersey was a blessing and I was just very grateful.” […]
“I wasn’t expecting to do the numbers, I just thought I was going to play 10, 12 minutes,” Jennings said. “I was real tired. I kept telling [starting point guard Eric Bledsoe], ‘Don’t foul, stop fouling. I’m tired.’ My nerves were running and everything like that but it was good.”
With the Bucks missing a pair of rotation guards in Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova, Bucks coach Joe Prunty has been searching for another reliable ball-handler and initiator behind Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe. For the duration of his 10-day stay, Jennings figures to get every opportunity to prove he can be that steady hand and burst of instant offense. For his part, Jennings — who says he only really began to start feeling like the fire of old after his 2015 Achilles tear, physically and mentally, during his time in China — seems awfully eager to both make up for lost time and to make the most of this second chance in the league.
“I want to play until I’m 35, and I want to make the best out of every opportunity and let people know I can still score the ball,” he recently told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “Don’t get it twisted. I can still put that thing in the hoop.”
And on Monday night, he proved it. Welcome back, Brandon Jennings. Nice to see you again.
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