Upon graduating high school in 2008 Brandon Jennings made an unusual move. Although he had a scholarship to the University of Arizona, Jennings decided to skip college and sign a contract to play professional basketball in Italy. Skeptics derided the move when it was announced. And after 43 games of European basketball, it looked like the skeptics were right. According to Draft Express, Jennings averaged less than seven points per game in Italy and his shooting efficiency was well below average.
Despite this performance, the Milwaukee Bucks invested the 10th pick in the 2009 NBA draft in Jennings. Again, there was skepticism. How could a player who couldn't excel in Italy make a significant contribution to an NBA team?
Well, it looks the skeptics were wrong. Earlier this month Brandon Jennings scored 55 points in a game, setting an NBA record for youngest player to ever pass the 50 point mark in a game. And this was not the only game where Jennings excelled. After 15 games, Jennings is averaging 23.4 points per game; and both his shooting efficiency and rebounding are above average.
So how good is Brandon Jennings? About 18 months ago Jennings was in high school. Now at 20 years of age - before the age he can start drinking - he's averaging 34 minutes a night for the Milwaukee Bucks. Since 1977-78, there have only been 24 guards to average more than 20 minutes per game before he reached his 21st birthday. So the playing time Jennings is getting is fairly unusual.
His productivity, though, is even more unique. NBA fans (and coaches and sports writers) tend to focus on scoring in evaluating NBA player. A player's contribution to wins, though, goes beyond scoring. Wins in the NBA are about shooting efficiently, getting rebounds, generating steals, and avoiding turnovers. Yes, blocked shots and assists impact outcomes. But efficient scoring and factors associated with getting and maintaining possession of the ball are the most important.
When we think about a player's production of wins - or Wins Produced - we see that what Jennings is doing is truly amazing. After 15 games Jennings has produced 0.181 Wins per 48 minutes [WP48]. An average player - as often noted at The Wages of Wins Journal -- will post a WP48 of 0.100; so Jennings is well above average.
Now let's put this in perspective. Here is a list of guards who - like Jennings -- have seen significant court time before the age of 21: Isiah Thomas, Mike Bibby, Stephon Marbury, Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon. What do all these players have in common? Although all of these players got to play at the age of 20, none managed to be above average performers. Yes, at 20 years of age, Jennings is doing more than Kobe, Isiah, and last year's Rookie of the Year, Derrick Rose.
Across the past three decades, only three players have been as productive at Jennings at this age. In 1979-80, Magic Johnson posted a 0.353 WP48 and produced 20.6 wins (yes, Magic was very good). Chris Paul - in 2005-06 - produced 17.9 wins with a 0.305 WP48 (yes, CP3 is also very good). And the next season, Rajon Rondo - playing only 23.5 minutes per game - produced 7.0 wins and posted a 0.184 WP48. If Jennings keeps playing 34 minutes per game - and he maintains the level of production we are currently seeing - he will finish the season with 10.6 Wins Produced.
Yes it's early. But it looks like the skeptics were wrong. Jennings may not be Magic or CP3. And we can't change the fact he didn't do much in Italy. But in the NBA, Mr. Jennings looks like he can play.