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Rookie Jennings flying high

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

MILWAUKEE -- Rookie Brandon Jennings had an out-of-the-blue question for the injured Michael Redd during a recent practice.

"'Mike, what's your career high?"' said Redd, who scored 57 points against Utah back in 2006. "He was like, 'Dang, how'd you do that?' and I said, 'Man, you just got to be on."'

Two days later, Jennings put up 55 points in a win against the Warriors, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score at least 50 in a game. The prep star who went to Europe has come home to the US and he has certainly been on for the young Bucks.

Jennings is averaging 24.8 points and has double figures in eight of nine games through Wednesday, an extraordinary start for any player in the NBA. You would think Bucks general manager John Hammond would be all smiles, but he is worried about the 20-year-old budding star.

Hammond's concern? It may be too much, too soon, too fast for the 10th pick in this year's draft who is a bona fide rookie of the year candidate less than a month into the season.

In this blue-collar town, the NBA plays third fiddle behind the NFL's Green Bay Packers and the MLB's Milwaukee Brewers, who are having their own renaissance with a playoff berth last year.

The Bucks play to sparse crowds in an arena meant for an NHL team that never came and opened before Jennings was born. If the NBA plans to stay in Milwaukee, the Bradley Center must be replaced and fans must come back to support a franchise that's finished dead last in the Central Division every year since the most recent realignment. Its 74-year-old owner, Sen. Herb Kohl, pumps millions into the team to help keep them afloat.

To Hammond, that's a load for any player to bear, much less a rookie.

"The pressure that all of a sudden falls on a young kid's shoulders in his first year in the league, talking about saving a franchise or needing a new arena, that's not fair for him this early," Hammond said.

For his part, Jennings is used to the pressure of expectations. He left Los Angeles three years ago to go to prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., and was one of the top high school recruits. But he struggled to qualify for college and instead signed a contract with Italy's Lottomatica Virtus Roma.

Europe wasn't much fun for the lefty used to making playground passes and running a flashy show. Twice-daily practices and long stretches on the bench helped him mature. Even so, he began falling on draft night and it looked like he had made a bad decision, costing him thousands of dollars each time another name was called that wasn't his.

"Everything that happened to the draft, not going to those teams that I thought were going to pick me up, I think I'm in a great situation right now," said Jennings, who adds with a grin that his new city reminds him of Europe. "The city of Milwaukee is laid back, and that's what I need right now."

The Bucks signed Jennings to a two-year contract worth almost $4.5 million in July. He made an awkward splash in his new home when an expletive-laced conversation ended up on YouTube, complete with derogatory comments about the Knicks, who passed on him in the draft, and the other two point guards on the team. Jennings quickly apologized.

Now he's staying as quiet as he can.

Jennings typically gets to the arena about four hours before game time and works with assistant coach Kelvin Sampson on his jump shot nearly every day. Bucks coach Scott Skiles, a former point guard who holds the NBA's single-game assists record, said Jennings has a lot to learn.

To Sampson, the way Jennings is being coached says a lot more about the respect Skiles has for his new point guard.

"Scott lets him play," Sampson said. "Whereas rookies go into situations where they get restricted because of the system. It shows you how good a coach Scott is, he's recognized what Brandon's good at and adjusted to him."

Jennings has also shown surprising maturity -- or restraint -- off the court. He says he's worried about a potential lockout at the end of next season, so much so that he bought a used car instead of the much more expensive SUVs that dot most NBA arena parking lots. He even likes to brag about the money he saved.

"A lot of these guys get a Mercedes or a Range Rover," Sampson said. "A lot of guys do stuff because of status, they think they're supposed to drive a Mercedes. He bought a Ford Edge."

Jennings also shunned moving downtown to take part in Milwaukee's small, but active nightlife. Instead of buying a condo overlooking Lake Michigan, he's living in a suburb less than a mile from the team's practice facility.

Jennings' motivation to get better and be one of the NBA's elite point guards took him across the country, overseas and now to the Midwest. He's happy with his winding road, but said it isn't for everyone. He said Europe paid off.

"My main goal is coming out here, making the playoffs, getting my teammates involved and trying to bring the winning back to Milwaukee," Jennings said. "We have to win. I'm going to do my part and I'm going to try and make sure the team does their part."

And he's got people watching out for him.

"The great thing is, I truly believe he's not afraid, he's not afraid for himself. He thinks he's good enough and can do this and that's most important," said Hammond, the GM. "We'll worry about him. He just goes out and performs."