There's a zest, a swagger to Brandon Jennings's game that has been present since he was a top high school prospect out of Los Angeles. The flashy lefthanded dribble, the looping, long-range shots, and the blazing quickness were all parts of Jennings's boastful game.
That brashness carried into the 2009 NBA draft when Jennings, unsure he would be taken in the lottery, hung out with family in New York until he was taken 10th by the Bucks. He then walked over to Madison Square Garden and onto the stage following the announcement of the 14th pick, surprising commissioner David Stern.
Jennings came as advertised in his four seasons in Milwaukee, a volume shooter who showed flashes of brilliance and selfishness. Jennings put up numbers but the Bucks, for various reasons, never vastly improved, and he took the brunt of the blame.
As a restricted free agent this past summer, Jennings drew little interest and appeared headed back to the Bucks until an August trade sent him to the Detroit Pistons in a swap of point guards, with Brandon Knight going to Milwaukee. So far, Jennings has not diverted from his scouting report. He leads the Pistons in scoring and assists. He is a volume shooter and unstoppable if he gets hot from the perimeter, as the Celtics found out with his 28-point performance Wednesday.
Jennings acknowledged the offseason was difficult and humbling, with teams seemingly passing on him because of his sometimes erratic game. Just 24, Jennings has been the center of criticism since he skipped college to play in Italy for one season five years ago.
"Overall, this is a big year for a lot of us," he said. "Especially for Detroit, they want to get back to the playoffs. They want to win. For me, it's big because of everything I went through this summer. People saying that I couldn't play the point guard position, I was just a primary scorer, this and that, but I think I had a lot of help working with [Pistons coach] Maurice Cheeks and Chauncey Billups every day.
"One thing Mo told me was, 'Don't lose your identity. So that's what we want you to do, is score. Don't forget who you really are.' "
That boost of confidence and support has served as motivation for Jennings, who had been chided for his shot selection and poor court decisions early in his career.
"The perception of me is totally wrong but maybe because I don't open up as much," he said. "The people who do know me, I'm real cool, laid back. I just don't open up to everybody. I just chill and stay in my lane. I think another thing is the summer just humbled me a lot overall. I took a lot of criticism this summer, saying teams didn't want me, I wasn't this caliber of player. I call it a humbling summer."
Being dealt by the team that drafted him after there was little free agent interest was a blow to Jennings's ego and confidence. He said it forced him to reflect.
"I had to look at the man in the mirror and ask myself if I was doing everything I was capable of doing," he said. "There were a lot of distractions, a lot of things I was worried about that weren't important. I will always love the game of basketball, but the perception was that I didn't care and didn't love the game, so I wanted to make sure this year people know I love playing the game. This is what I do."
Cheeks talked with Jennings after the trade, encouraging him to become a better and more unselfish player.
"We have a great relationship," Cheeks said. "I just try and teach him the game, little nuances of the game. When I tell him to be himself, himself is good enough. He can score the basketball. I am trying to teach him about involving his teammates, defending the ball, doing all those things that help his team win games. He's coming along fine."
Said Jennings: "One thing Mo put in my head also is it's not about who has the better numbers, it's about who's running their team at the point guard position. He told me as an NBA point guard, you're measured by the way you run your team and by wins, and that's my main thing, staying as a hot team in the league so when they come to Detroit they know, 'Oh man, we've got to play against Detroit.' That's where my mind-set is now. It's all about running the team, and you're measured by wins. That's everything."
There are distinct differences, Jennings said, between Detroit and Milwaukee. The Bucks never added a premium free agent during his tenure, and placed confidence in former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut, who was beset with injuries before his March 2012 trade to the Golden State Warriors.
While the Bucks are in a total rebuild, the Pistons are desperately trying to make their first playoff appearance in five years.
"Here, there are very high expectations," Jennings said of Detroit. "Since Day One when I got here, [team president] Joe Dumars said all we care about is winning championships. We don't care who's an All-Star or make the playoffs or the Central Division, we want to win championships. We like rings. It's definitely a totally different mind-set than Milwaukee. The fact they strive on winning. Winning is everything."
Jennings harbors no ill will toward the Bucks. His impact on the organization is not lost on him.
"I still have love for Milwaukee, that's where I started my career," he said. "They took a chance on me because I was a kid that went overseas and nobody knew me or knew I can play. I still got love for everything we did there. I'm not going to take all the full credit, but I brought a lot of spark to the city, going to the playoffs two years, just changing it a little bit, the [high-top fade] haircut, everything."
Stevens, Celtics receive praise for performance
The Celtics are one of the league's more surprising teams, leading the Atlantic Division despite a losing record. They have played hard most of their games, have wins over the Knicks (twice), Miami, Minnesota, Atlanta, and Denver.
A crew of NBA experts was asked last week to assess the Celtics and coach Brad Stevens, and he got stellar grades from former coaches Hubie Brown and Jeff Van Gundy. Stevens's coaching has removed speculation the Celtics were going to tank the season. Nearly one-third of the way into the season, they have a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs.
"Well, as you step back from it all, I really like what they're doing by playing the younger players on their starting unit," Brown said. "I thought having the older guys in the exhibitions held them back a little bit starting out. I like what you have with [Jeff] Green, [J ared] Sullinger, and then [Brandon] Bass up front, and also with your second unit. Now that [Kelly] Olynyk is back, I think that solidifies five very young, talented guys that you have at 4 and 5.
"So I would say that they're doing a very good job. They have some excellent wins on the road at Miami and at Atlanta. So I think you have to be encouraged with what you're seeing now. At home they're starting to play the tougher teams that they have to beat in close games."
Brown said the Celtics have legitimate postseason chances.
"I've done two games up there, and the people appreciate the effort that the team is putting out there, and they have experimented with their starting and backup players," he said. "Then when Rajon Rondo comes back, another adjustment will be made, and then hopefully because it's wide open for positions 3 through 8 in the playoffs, that they can maintain this improvement from week to week.
"I expect them to make a really solid move once we get into February in the All-Star Game — from here to the end of the year — because I just feel that they are in the same boat. Everybody is on the same bus, on the same train because that coaching staff has a good rapport with their players."
The Celtics have exceeded expectations, including Van Gundy's. "For me, I didn't think they had, with Rondo out, a chance of being this competitive right off the bat," he said. "I think Brad Stevens is just an outstanding basketball coach with a great demeanor. I think he's assembled such a quality staff that they're tremendously coached right off the bat. And I think that's been a huge help in the development and patience of their younger players."
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge displayed the utmost confidence in Stevens by giving the 37-year-old a six-year contract worth $22 million, an unprecedented deal for a coach with no NBA experience. Such a contract expresses to players that Stevens has the ultimate power.
"You see, what Brad was able to do was, and what Danny Ainge did was he picked Brad," Van Gundy said. "Not only did he pick him, he didn't hedge his bets and say, OK, yeah, we want you because we think you're great. But we're going to give you a contract of two years and an option. So the first time it gets rough here, we'll have the ability to cut bait and move on to somebody else we can blame.
"No, he went all in on Brad, and give ownership great credit for giving him the six-year deal that let everybody in the organization and the players know, this is our coach. If there is a problem, you will be going, not him. We're all in behind Brad Stevens. Then you couple that support with Brad's basketball acumen, his personality, his staff selection, and the players doing a great job of giving maximum effort. You've had a very, very successful run so far."
Jeff Van Gundy’s name popping up in rumors
The hottest coaching candidate in this already bizarre NBA season is former Knicks and Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy, who currently works as an ESPN analyst. The Knicks are one of those teams who could be looking for a head coach if they continue their downward spiral under Mike Woodson, who was left to explain why he did not call a timeout following a Bradley Beal layup that put the Wizards ahead by 1 point with 6.9 seconds left in last Monday's 102-101 loss to Washington.
Carmelo Anthony took the inbounds pass from Beno Udrih and lofted a 40-footer that clanged off the backboard. The Knicks had three timeouts left and plenty of time to devise a potential game-winning play. Woodson was heavily criticized and admitted fault for not calling a timeout, and had the Knicks not won in double overtime two nights later at Milwaukee, he could have been fired.
Van Gundy, rumored as Woodson's potential replacement, has strong thoughts on the topic.
"These are things that you have discussed and practiced from the time you started training camp — all these late-game situations," he said. "I don't think there is a right way or a wrong way either to call it or not to call it. But there should be, and I'm sure there is, a philosophy about how you want to handle those situations.
"But certainly if you're going to play off the make and not take a timeout, Carmelo Anthony has to catch it a little higher up the court and he has to push the ball up the court with a lot more urgency. The thing that really irritated me was even if somebody had the opinion that it was a mistake, to then go from it being a mistake to 'a fireable offense' is ludicrous. You don't cut a player or trade a player because they make a mistake under pressure in an NBA game; nor should there be an overreaction if there was a coaching mistake made."
Van Gundy defended Woodson and blamed the Knicks' struggles on poor play and injuries.
"I think right now everybody has their sights set on what Mike Woodson needs to do better, but what really needs to happen is they need to get their roster intact," Van Gundy said. "When they're healthy, they need to play a lot better."
Van Gundy won't call the game when the Knicks host the Thunder on Christmas Day, presumably a move by ESPN to eliminate the distraction. Van Gundy said he did not ask off the game. He will work the Lakers-Heat telecast instead.
"That sort of got ramped up a little too much," he said. "I think it was maybe 10 to 12 days before — I'm not sure about the exact timing — I got switched off the game. I don't think there was any specific reason. I've had two or three games changed this year on my schedule. So I didn't give it much thought.
"But I was happy when I saw the game before or maybe it was two games before when my name was brought out. I've coached in that market, as has Coach [Hubie] Brown, and people start talking about your job, and I've been hung on the back page of the New York Post, with the Van Gone back page and Back Up the Van and all that stuff, so I know how painful that stuff can be for a coach going through the speculation. I was glad, whether it was coincidental or not by whoever makes the schedule for ESPN, that 10 or 12 days before I got switched off that game."
With Rudy Gay gone already, there is speculation everyone on the Raptors roster, even center Jonas Valanciunas, is available as general manager Masai Ujiri attempts to reshape the team and rebuild through the draft. Kyle Lowry could be the next to go, to the point guard-hungry Knicks, who lack assets to send to the Raptors and are reluctant to ship another first-round pick after giving up several in the Anthony and Andrea Bargnani deals . . . The NBA is planning to go through with the "nickname" jersey games and the Celtics are indeed involved, playing the Heat Jan. 21. Former Celtic Ray Allen will don a jersey with the name "J. Shuttlesworth" on the back (his name in the movie "He Got Game") and all players have the option of wearing a popular nickname on the back, bringing the league back to the 1970s . . . With the Lakers desperately needing a point guard, they have signed former lottery pick Kendall Marshall from the NBADL, where he was flourishing. Marshall was considered a potential starting point guard when he was drafted by the Phoenix Suns out of North Carolina in 2012 but his inability to shoot and run a fast-break offense damaged his stock . . . It's less than two months before commissioner David Stern steps down and is succeeded by Adam Silver, but the potential relocation issue has crept up again with the Bucks as owner Herb Kohl is seeking additional investors to help keep the team in Milwaukee. The Bradley Center is the worst facility in the league and Stern has encouraged owners and the city to develop an arena plan after the Sacramento Kings saved their team with a new project. Meanwhile, the city of Seattle is waiting for a team so it can begin its arena construction . . . A young power forward who could be on the market is Thaddeus Young, who is uncomfortable in the 76ers' rebuilding plan and wants to play for a winner. Young is difficult to defend for traditional power forwards because of his quickness, but he struggles stopping bigger players. Young is signed for two more seasons with a player option in 2015-16.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.