By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t won much this season, but they did win this: Their summertime swap of Brandons.
The July 31 deal was bigger than just that, with Khris Middleton adding to the Bucks’ haul (Viacheslav Kravtsov was just ballast) . But at its core, the sign-and-trade was about a swap of and preference in combo guards Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings. Jennings had exploded on the scene in Milwaukee in 2009-10, scoring 55 points in his seventh NBA game. That immediately triggered second-guessing in New York, where the Knicks had drafted Jordan Hill two spots ahead of Jennings, and kick-started Milwaukee’s “Fear The Deer” season in which they finished 46-36, reached the playoffs and might have made some real noise if not for center Andrew Bogut‘s arm and wrist injuries from an ugly spill late in the regular season.
Jennings’ quick start as a scorer, however, hurt his game, in the opinion of some NBA scouts. His shoot-first inclinations calcified, despite unimpressive accuracy numbers (39.4 percent shooting, 35.4 on 3-pointers, in four seasons with the Bucks). He also had difficulty finishing at the rim.
Yet Jennings stayed bold with his shot, showing less interest in setting up teammates. That led to some locker-room frustration, even squabbles, especially when Jennings could respond to an All-Star snub by averaging 14.5 assists for a week but was down at 5.7 for four Bucks seasons.
He hit restricted free agency ready for a change. Milwaukee was ready too, agreeing to a swap for Knight while Jennings landed a three-year, $24 million deal in Detroit.
Knight had heard many of the same criticisms in two seasons in Detroit: Not a true point guard, a ‘tweener, and so on. But the Bucks liked his size, his skills, his age and his salary, and despite the presence of other guards (Luke Ridnour, Gary Neal, O.J. Mayo, Nate Wolters, later Ramon Sessions), flipped the keys of their offense to the south Florida native.
Knight showed a lot of Jennings’ tendencies for the Bucks without generating hard feelings. He has shot the ball 200 times more than any teammate, despite his 41.7 percent success rate, and he leads the team in 3-point attempts (306) if not accuracy (32.7). He’s their leader in assists, too, but with an average (4.9) lower than Jennings averaged in his four Bucks seasons. Ditto for Knight’s turnovers (2.6), higher than what Jennings coughed up while there.
But he’s two years younger than Jennings, two years away from unrestricted free agency and a lot more affordable. Coincidentally, Knight is only the second player in Bucks history to lead the team in both points and assists in his first season with the club. The first? Jennings.
Bucks coach Larry Drew talked up Knight before a game against Miami last weekend.
“There was always the big question, could he play point? I still think that Brandon is a very young developing player,” Drew said. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Did I know that Brandon was actually younger than Michael Carter-Williams?’ … You think about that. We think of Michael Carter-Williams as a really young terrific NBA player. He has a chance to be Rookie of the Year. It seems like Brandon has been around for a few more years.
“Brandon wants to get better, he wants to learn. We challenge him at that point guard position – that’s such a vital position in our league. He’s still making mistakes, and that’s something we have to continue to work with him on. But after all that’s been said about him from the very beginning, particularly when he was in Detroit, I thought he came into this thing very positive. And I know he was in the mindset of wanting to prove something.”
With their seasons nearly complete and their teams’ series ending earlier this week. it seemed like a good time to tell the tale of two Brandons with a tale of the tape:
Jennings: 6-foot-1, 169 pounds. Born Sept. 23, 1989 (24). No. 10 pick in 2009.
Knight: 6-foot-3, 189 pounds. Born Dec. 2, 1991 (22). No. 8 pick in 2011.
Comment: It’s hard to beat Jennings’ elusiveness and quickness, but Knight is fast, too. And the Bucks feel his size is better suited to playing the defense that, in time, they think he’s capable of providing.
Team W-L record
Jennings: 27-48, fourth in the Central Division.
Knight: 14-61, last in the Central.
Comment: With nearly double the victories, this might be classified as a blowout for Jennings. Then again, winning 27 gets you a lottery spot same as winning 14, except that Milwaukee might land a guarantee of no pick worse than No. 4. The Pistons will need to get lucky to leap ahead of the Bucks.
Advantage: Jennings (c’mon, winning games still matters).
Basic individual stats
Jennings: 15.7 ppg, 7.8 apg, 3.0 rpg, 34.3 mpg, 2.6 turnovers, 1.3 steals. 37.7 FG%, 34.5 3FG%.
Knight: 17.5 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.5 rpg, 32.9 mpg, 2.6 turnovers, 1.0 steals, 41.7 FG%, 32.7 3FG%.
Comment: Jennings’ assists numbers are a personal high, reflective of the scoring talent around him – Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Rodney Stuckey – and Detroit’s presumed desire to win and play right at least early in the season. Knight has self-nominated as the “someone has to score on a bad team” guy.
Advanced individual stats:
Jennings: 107 offensive rating, 112 defensive rating, 35.1 assists %, 44.6 eFG%, 16.3 PER.
Knight: 104 offensive rating, 113 defensive rating, 27.1 assists %, 46.8 eFG%, 16.4 PER.
Comment: A little credit here, a little debit there, it’s awfully close. But then you notice that Jennings’ PER, effective field-goal percentage and offensive/defensive ratings all have gotten worse from two seasons ago (18.4, 47.6%, 106/107) and, two years further along than Knight, he’s headed the wrong way.
Jennings: 20.5 ppg, 10.3 apg, 2.8 rpg, 40.9 FG%, 50.0 3FG%, plus-13.4 ppg in four games against Milwaukee.
Knight: 15.3 ppg, 5.8 apg4.3 rpg, 32.1 FG%, 21.4 3FG%, minus-14.6 ppg in the four meetings.
Comment: Jennings left Milwaukee with a fair amount of baggage, even bitterness. It figures he would have more to prove, more of a statement to make, than Knight when facing his former team. And sure enough, Jennings did. The Pistons went 3-1 against the Bucks this season.
Jennings: $7.7 million this season, another $16.3 million in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Knight: $2.8 million salary this season, $8.3 million the next two years.
Comment: On a per-points, per-assists, per-anything basis, Knight already is a better buy than Jennings and figures to stay that way for another two seasons.