Photo from ~ Marjolein ~ via Flickr
Even a week later, the sign-and-trade bringing Brandon Jennings just feels weird.
Maybe it was how it came about. The NBA has, over the past few years, taught us to expect little-to-nothing from restricted free agency. Most applicants fall into one of three major camps – swift, immediate re-uppings, such as Tiago Splitter this year; matched offer sheets, such as Jeff Teague; or a withdrawn qualifying offer, such as with Tyler Hansbrough.
Neither of these is a major source of drama. Occasionally, members of the second group whose agents have neglected to teach them how restricted free agency works are “insulted” that their initial team hasn’t offered them a contract, let everybody know that they’d rather leave, and are then even more “insulted” when the sheet is matched (this is also known as “The Eric Gordon”, and it’s incredibly annoying). On even rarer occasions, we might get major news that exceeds the realm of gossip and hurt feelings, such as last offseasons’ dual-poison-pilling by the Houston Rockets, or Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic holding out on the 2007 Cavs.
Usually, though, a restricted free agent eventually finds himself back where he started, be it on a fair deal struck early in July, or at a discount a few weeks later. So it was somewhat out of place to see Jennings, a major free agent by name if not by production than by name, make news in a manner so unrepresentative of his restricted status. Which caught me off guard, because, four years in, I’ve stopped expecting surprises out of Brandon Jennings.
It’s an odd thing to say, given how unexpected the start to his career was. From the decision to spend a year in Rome as opposed to donning an NCAA-sanctioned uniform, to showing up late to the NBA draft in which the Bucks picked him 10th, to those damn 55 points, all the way to his Bucks nearly advancing to the second round to end a rookie year of which nothing was initially expected, Jennings had established himself as an out-of-the-blue extraordinaire. His game inherently flashy, swagger oozing from every pore, he was a refresher through and through.
Of course, the problem with Jennings’ entire career has been just how high the standards were set after jos scorching start. That premise was explored in impressive detail and excruciating pain by some very smart Bucks bloggers following his ultimate departure, but even without Bucks rooting interests, the deterioration was depressing. Brandon Jennings, former breath of fresh air, turned into Brandon Jennings, living embodiment of a franchise with stagnation etched upon its flag. There were still flashes of unique happenings – every now and then he would play that game or hit that shot, and every now and then his team would trade for Monta Ellis or draft John Henson – but those were minutiae. The Jennings season recap would always tell the story of a sub-40% shooting, high usage pick and roll initiator, who is technichally a borderline all-star, but is only in consideration because he plays in a guard-bereft East. Similarly, the Bucks season recap would always tell of a team ultimately relegated to yet another narrowly missed playoff berth, or a narrowly hit playoff berth that might as well have been missed.
If nothing else, the move to Detroit offers Jennings, and those who are watching him, a chance to break out of that rut. Yes, it’s looking like a lower Eastern playoff spot (How U), but it’ll be a different lower Eastern playoff spot. One without Scott Skiles running the show (or Jim Boylan, who might as well be Scott Skiles). One without Ersan Ilyasova (bless his soul) as the primary pick-and-pop weapon of choice. One with a different jersey and a different mascot and different League Pass broadcasters. Brandon Jennings might just be who he is, at this point, but if he was ever going to be somebody else, sheer inertia meant that Milwaukee was no longer a fit screen upon which he could project that sequel.
In that sense, Jennings is very much like his new teammate, Josh Smith. Not just because both have maddening shot selection and a seemingly squandered skill set, but because Smith, like Jennings, has been who he is and where he is for so long that he’s become almost imperceptible. Josh Smith, the player has become Josh Smith, The Idea. The versatile freak athlete has been replaced with that familiar #5 Hawks jersey, taking yet another jumper as the half-empty arena screams “NOOOOOOOOOO” all the way to a first round playoff bounce, even if he happens to do something else every now and again.
We might see the same things in Detroit, but just by seeing them in new surroundings, we leave the possibility of something new open. Whether it’s individual success, a surprising team run, or just some fun pick and roll synergy with Andre Drummond – himself a once-future-star whose slip in the draft was offset by a tantalizing rookie season – Brandon Jennings once again offers us some freedom of imagination. Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov seem like a small price to pay for that.