Jennings Making Presence Felt As Bucks Strive For Turnaround
With all the movement that has taken place over the past few years in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks appear to be nearing their turn on the clock as they look to rebuild around a star whose future will likely hold an appearance in free agency. When the team traded Andrew Bogut this past season, the burden to be the franchise cornerstone shifted toward Brandon Jennings. It is believed in some corners that Jennings has not been the true franchise player Milwaukee expected, but that belief is not shared by the Bucks.
For all the talk about Jennings bolting Milwaukee for a bigger market and a better chance to contend, he has shown Bucks officials nothing but loyalty. He has said at various points over the past year that he will surely test the free agent market next summer when his contract expires, and the Bucks understand their window has to open soon. Over the past two seasons, the Bucks have compiled a 66-82 record and have not made the playoffs, leaving one to wonder how much the club will now gear its attention toward building a winner around Jennings.
As the Bucks introduced draft picks John Henson and Doron Lamb on Friday morning at the Bradley Center, there was a renewed sense of hope and brimming desire to change the losing culture this franchise has endured during the last eight seasons – as evidenced by just two playoff berths and first-round eliminations both times in that span.
Henson and Lamb, selected with the 14th and 42nd picks respectively, come from successful runs in the NCAA tournament and from established programs. The 20-year-old Lamb won the national championship in his lone season at Kentucky and Henson, 21, led North Carolina to the Elite 8. While Henson serves as the mild-mannered, humble rookie who claims his favorite city is Milwaukee, Lamb is filled with edge and the high level of confidence necessary to make good on his belief that he will get better in the NBA to “prove to everybody that I’m a first-round pick.”
In all, Henson and Lamb were sound picks at their respective slots in Thursday’s draft.
“It’s very difficult to change habits,” Scott Skiles said. “When you have guys that have a habit of winning, it tends to have an effect on your team as opposed to the habit of losing.”
From the outset, Henson will have no problem fitting into the Bucks’ rotation. Skiles and his coaching staff are adamant that he will perfectly match a frontcourt that has been lacking in recent years. Henson, for his part, acknowledged he must bulk up to increase his strength, but he joked that his current weight was “enough” to get drafted.
Given the environment the Bucks are trying to build – seemingly from the ground up – it will take more than just “enough,” and Henson knows it. The Bucks feel Henson has a polished offensive game, using both hands instinctively, and that he will be one of the best shot blockers in the league as long as he continues to progress. Henson will join big men Ekpe Udoh, Samuel Dalembert and Larry Sanders up front – a group that has all the ability in the world to be formidable in protecting the basket, and even protecting teammates as Skiles put it.
“Larry, Ekpe, John and Sam, we have four high-level NBA shot blockers,” Skiles said. “There are a lot of teams running a [small lineup].
“We should be one of the better shot-blocking teams in the league. A weakness of our team was defending around the rim.”
Although Henson will step into the rotation immediately, Lamb’s role will be as a reserve as he steps into a backcourt that includes scoring-minded guards Jennings and Monte Ellis. But Lamb has been well-regarded across the league, and he was one of the top shooters in the draft, hitting 46.6 percent from three-point range for the Wildcats.
Many observers believed he slipped Thursday, including Lamb himself. From Skiles to general manager John Hammond, the Bucks stressed that Lamb was a major steal in the second round. Hammond said Milwaukee received countless phone calls from teams before and after the draft, but it made clear to all that Lamb was not going anywhere.
As Skiles wrapped up discussing the need to make strides on defense, Hammond calmly interrupted to announce that Jennings was in the room. Everyone was surprised Jennings had been in attendance, standing alone near the back, against the wall – hidden from the media, hidden from his coach and new teammates.
All along, Jennings’ contributions to Milwaukee have been underplayed in the national spotlight. Mostly, his loyalty and commitment to the Bucks’ organization has gone widely overlooked, leading to speculation that he could head elsewhere when free agency arrives. And yet Jennings has consistently remained well in Milwaukee’s picture as a source of leadership. He has accepted all the responsibilities and requests thrust upon his shoulders from the Bucks – and Friday was no different.
“We always appreciate Brandon, what he stands for,” Hammond said. “We ask him to be here for these guys. And every time he’s here for us.”
Nevertheless, the question begs: For how long will Jennings continue to be there for the Bucks? Out of nowhere, Jennings showed up to personally introduce two new building blocks, an inside-outside tandem that appears to have the skill sets that will mesh terrifically together. As the Bucks hope to transition to a winning culture with winning habits, both Henson and Lamb could very well play prominent parts.
Now, more than ever, Jennings seems primed to remain the driving force of that transition.