European Roundup: Jennings Managing Expectations

European Roundup: Jennings Managing Expectations
Nov 14, 2008, 01:06 am
In this week's European roundup we take an extended look at the most intriguing storyline in this year's NBA Draft with Rome's Brandon Jennings. Also, the play of 7-3 Mirza Begic, arguably the top center in the Euroleague thus far. The latest African prospect to emerge in Spain is Joventut's Christian Eyenga. Emil Prelzdic and Sergio Llull continue to provide their team with late-game heroics in the Euroleague. Omri Casspi snaps out of his funk. Adriatic League prospects Vladimir Dasic, Nemanja Gordic and Dragan Labovic all love playing in the EuroCup.

Player of the Week: Brandon Jennings

Brandon Jennings seems to be settling into his role in European basketball thus far, to the point that it seems safe to begin preliminarily analyzing how he’s playing. With nine games underneath his belt (five in the Italian league, where Rome is 4-1, and four in the Euroleague, where they stand 3-1), Jennings is averaging 18.5 minutes per game, scoring 8 points on 35% shooting from the field and 31% from beyond the arc, pulling down under 2 rebounds and dishing out 2.35 assists compared with 1.35 turnovers. Not really the stuff legends are made out of, but fairly impressive nonetheless considering what he’s going up against at his age. Numbers are typically not the best way to evaluate players in Europe, and this definitely holds true in this case.

To fully understand Jennings’ role on his team, you must look at the players that are around him, particularly in the team’s backcourt. Former Ivy League player of the year Ibrahim Jaaber (an athletic, defensive minded player) is the starting point guard for all intents and purposes, while former Villanova and Boston Celtic Allan Ray sees over 20 minutes per game as a combo guard.

The most important backcourt player is clearly Slovenian Sani Becirovic, though, a very aggressive and extremely skilled combo guard who is having easily his best season ever as a pro. Becirovic is averaging 15.5 points per game in just 23 minutes per, shooting outrageous percentages, getting to the line at an amazing rate, playing almost no defense (as usual), and doing a fair amount of ball-handling in most minutes he’s on the floor. He has the green light to do basically whatever he pleases on this team, and he can seemingly do no wrong this season thus far.

Alongside them we find the 19-year old rookie Jennings, sometimes coming off the bench (typically for the 2nd and 3rd quarters), at times getting the starting nod, but rarely a major focal point in the offense. This is quite normal considering the quality of players around him (big men Andre Hutson and Primoz Brezec are both major back to the basket threats) and the level of competition Rome competes at. As Jennings gains more experience and earns the trust of the very patient coaching staff led by Croatian Jasmin Repesa, he may feel more comfortable showing his full array of talent.

Right now, Jennings appears to be at his best receiving outlet passes and pushing the ball up the floor in transition. His outstanding combination of speed and ball-handling skills make him absolutely impossible to contain in the open floor, and he is able to change the tempo of the game immediately by turning a defensive rebound into an easy basket.

Another positive impact Jennings is making is with his shooting stroke, which appears to have major potential down the road. He does a very good job spotting up on the wing in catch and shoot situations, looking quite reliable with his feet set, while he can also make some shots off the dribble as well, although his accuracy drops significantly in the process.

As Jennings earns more trust from Repesa, we see the coach letting him get more involved in pick and roll situations in half-court sets. Jennings has great potential here too, as he turns the corner on screens with a tremendous burst of speed, and has the court vision to find the open man rolling to the basket with terrific flair and creativity. He’s shown some terrific sparks of talent with his passing ability at times, having the added benefit of being left-handed, and already being featured on some highlight reels thanks to the flashy assists he can dish out.

Where Jennings has struggled at times is in his ability to get to the basket and finish strong against contact in half-court situations. His lack of strength hurts him here, as he is not the toughest or most physical player around and seems to have trouble operating in the very crowded paint that Europe is famous for, not getting much love from the referees in the process.

He seems to be settling way too much for perimeter jumpers in turn, which helps explain the very poor percentages he’s shooting from the field (35%) and beyond the arc (31%). He has a tendency to pull-up off the dribble early in the shot-clock while fading-away awkwardly for no particular reason, adding a significant degree of difficulty to an already difficult shot. He can certainly make shots of this nature, but not at a high enough percentage to justify taking them.

Jennings’ shot-selection and overall decision making are still a work in progress in general, which is not a surprise considering his age, even if the talent he displays is undeniable. He needs to do a better job of valuing possessions and not getting careless with the ball, as he doesn’t always read what the defense gives him and tends to struggle with things like managing the shot-clock and controlling tempo. Occasionally you’ll still catch him looking more concerned with making a flashy play over a more simple one, but for the most part he looks very focused and willing to learn, and is definitely making strides from week to week.

Defensively, Jennings is making noticeable strides, but still has room to improve. On one hand, he seems to be putting a pretty good effort into his man to man defense, showing really nice lateral quickness staying in front of his man and better fundamentals than we saw in the past. On the other hand, he lacks significant strength and seems to get pushed off the ball far too easily, having a difficult time getting around screens as well. His team defense is definitely a work in progress, as he looks a bit lackadaisical staying aware of where the ball is on the floor, and is not showing the greatest hustle going after loose balls or trying to help out on the glass.

Even though Jennings has been fairly up and down early in the season thus far (particularly in the Italian league, where he has struggled badly at times), its hard not to come away impressed by how he’s fared, all things considered. He walked into a very difficult situation and seems to be making the best of it thus far, holding his own against hostile crowds and tough gyms in places like Vitoria, Berlin and Ljubljana. There is absolutely no question that he will become a significantly better player from the experience he’s gaining every day, as he’s competing at an incredibly high level under an outstanding coach and is being allowed to latitude to learn from his mistakes.

Jennings looks to have the makings of a very high draft pick at the moment, even if it is very early in the season. We will have to wait and see how he progresses over the next few months, but the early returns look pretty promising.

Follow Brandon Jennings’ advanced stats throughout the season in both the Euroleague and Italian League on his DX stat page.

Looking Beyond the Draft

Begic Blossoming for Olimpija

One of the most pleasant surprises and notable performers thus far in the Euroleague is Slovenian center Mirza Begic. Not long ago a marginal draft prospect -he actually went undrafted in 2007- he’s developing into an extremely productive big man (averaging 16 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 23 minutes in the Euroleague), showcasing the kind of back-to-the-basket skills that are so rare to find nowadays among big men.

There’s no wonder that Begic’s most intriguing abilities revolve around his low-post game. Begic takes advantage of his superb length, showing solid footwork, body control and consistently connecting on his hook shots (preferably with his right hand). Certainly not a hustler or a banger, he doesn’t avoid contact down low, showing good hands to catch the ball, a good feel for the game, and decent quickness executing his moves. When you package all these abilities in a 7-3 body, you know he’s going to do some serious damage.

Still fairly skinny, much of the progress he has enjoyed as of late is consequence of his body development, as he looks now visibly stronger, which allows him to take contact and operate much more comfortably around the basket. Besides, despite his great size he can get off the floor or run the court reasonably well, even if his limited quickness emerges as one of his shortcomings on the defensive end (the biggest one might be a certain degree of softness). Anyway, he’s a solid rebounder, a fairly intimidating presence on the paint thanks to his length.

We’ll see how the season unfolds for Begic. Despite his Euroleague achievements, his performance at the Adriatic League appears to be significantly less consistent. He’s always carried a rep for being somewhat of an underachiever throughout his career, as he reportedly is not the most enthusiastic worker around, so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his extremely hot start. Anyway, if he shows some solidity in his outings, chances are he won’t be playing for Olimpija next season, as someone will throw significant money his way in the search for quality size on the paint. In fact, considering that his contract is up this summer, there is some talk that he may be bought out by a rich team in Spain or Russia this season already. And if he keeps developing, the NBA is not out of the question.

Quick Hitters

The African Wave stays alive in Spain. One of the last imports made his debut in the Euroleague this past week, and answers by the name of Christian Eyenga. He only stayed on the court for a few minutes, but he plays regularly for Joventut’s related LEB Silver team Prat, where we had the chance to watch him. Unlike most of his continent mates crossing the Mediterranean, Eyenga is not an inside player, but a small forward. Born in 1989, he’s a very athletic guy, listed at 6-5, even if he looks more like 6-6. He enjoys a nice wingspan, shows a nicely built body, not bulky, but ripped and pretty strong, good enough to clash against the veterans he faces on a weekly basis in the Spanish third division (LEB Silver).

Eyenga doesn’t particularly stand out for his skills or basketball IQ. Still, he can knock down three-pointers, even if his high-released jumper is pretty inconsistent (he struggles finding balance in the air to ignite a fluid release). He also shows a very nice first step to beat his opponents off the dribble -although he lacks the ball-handling skills to change directions reliably- and he shows decent criteria passing the ball. At least, he seems aware of what he can do on the court. Defensively, he’s pretty intimidating, and regularly collects spectacular blocks. Still, he sometimes relies too much on his athleticism while defending, not properly doing his job on the ground.

Not likely to develop into a big-time prospect, Eyenga’s athleticism makes him moderately intriguing as a defensive-oriented small forward (who plays bigger than his size) with –hopefully- a decent outside stroke.

-For the second straight week, it was Slovenian forward Emil Prelzdic the one making huge plays for Fenerbahce Ulker in a dramatic winning effort. The 21 year-old had another big outing, coming up with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in a double-overtime victory over Olimpija Ljubljana. The 6-9 Prelzdic is impressing with his ability to handle the ball, make plays for himself and others, and play multiple positions in Fenerbahce’s offense. His shooting stroke remains streaky and he really didn’t look like much of a defender in certain possessions today, but there is no question that he is deserving of an extensive look sometime soon.

-Another young hero in the Euroleague today was Sergio Llull, who sparked his team back from a 5-point deficit with a minute to go to help Real Madrid defeat Armani Jeans Milano. Llull’s energy, defense and aggressiveness were huge keys. With Raul Lopez again on the shelf, Llull had 11 points and 4 assists in 24 minutes.

-After three disappointing outings in which he was basically a non-factor, Omri Casspi finally had his first good Euroleague game of the season today in a blowout loss against Olympiakos, scoring 16 points in 18 minutes after getting the nod to open in the starting five. Casspi has received little to no credit from new Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Effi Birenboim in the Euroleague thus far, but a shakeup was probably in order considering how poorly his team has performed in virtually every match they’ve played this season. This was supposed to be Casspi’s coming out party this season, after removing his name from the draft last June while despite being considered a borderline first round pick. This week started off well for him with a solid 19-point in 22 minute performance in the Israeli league against Nahariya, and he will attempt to build off his first good Euroleague game next week at home against Unicaja Malaga.

-Following up on last week’s post about Vladimir Dasic, Nemanja Gordic and Buducnost’s surprising result against Turkish power Galatasaray in Istanbul, we should mention that the return game of the EuroCup qualifier was barely a contest, as Buducnost embarrassed Galatasaray 93-62 at home in Montenegro. Gordic and Dasic both scored 16 points each. That win puts Buducnost in the Group stage of the EuroCup now, alongside Czech club Nymburk, Serbian club Hemofarm and Spanish side Bilbao, which is quite a manageable draw. Gordic and Dasic will now enjoy the exposure of competing twice a week in both the Adriatic League and EuroCup, which is a nice bonus for them. They are both overdue for write-ups on this site, which is likely to happen within the next few weeks as we continue to evaluate them.

-Also qualifying for the group stage of the EuroCup is Serbian club FMP Zeleznik, who managed to knock off Ural Great from Russia in the second qualifying stage, after disposing of MyGuide Amsterdam in the first. The star of the team thus far has clearly been 6-9 power forward Dragan Labovic, who is averaging 21 points per game in their four EuroCup games this season. Labovic has been scoring right around 20 points per game in the Adriatic league as well, which qualifies him as the league’s #1 overall scorer. Even though he doesn’t enjoy the same potential as some of his International counterparts, it’s hard to ignore the production he’s delivering on a weekly basis.

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