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Jennings' Italian seasoning pays off with thrilling NBA start
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Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings reacts at the end of the game against Golden State on Nov. 14. Jennings scored 55 points in the Bucks' 129-125 victory over the Warriors.
By Jeffrey Phelps, AP
Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings reacts at the end of the game against Golden State on Nov. 14. Jennings scored 55 points in the Bucks' 129-125 victory over the Warriors.
MILWAUKEE — Brandon Jennings misses risotto, fresh angel hair pasta and Italian cheeses.

The Milwaukee Bucks rookie point guard does not miss sitting on the bench for Italian pro basketball team Lottomatica Virtus Roma, where he spent last season.

"I just like to play basketball," Jennings says. "My main goal is making the playoffs and bringing winning back to Milwaukee."

He's off to a good start.

In his seventh game, Jennings, 20, became the youngest NBA player to score 50 points when he dropped 55 on the Golden State Warriors, breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks record for most points by a rookie in a game.

"I'd be embarrassing myself if I said I expected stuff like this to happen," Bucks general manager John Hammond says. "He'll have a great game, and you think, 'What can he do next?' Well, he tops it. Then you say, 'He can't top that one.' He does it again."

Jennings led all rookies in scoring (25.3, eighth in league), assists (5.5) and three-pointers made (28-for-57) entering Monday's game against the San Antonio Spurs.

He has generated a buzz about the Bucks that has been missing since Ray Allen led them to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.

At 8-3, Milwaukee has the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks needed 20 games last season to record their eighth victory; they have not finished with a winning record since 2003.

With the departure of their top scorers last season —Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions— the Bucks were not expected to have this kind of success so soon.

That's also why Jennings' journey to Milwaukee is the talk of the young season. ESPN has noticed, juggling its Friday lineup to include the Bucks at the Oklahoma City Thunder, another young team, featuring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It will be the Bucks' first appearance on the network since Jan. 11, 2008.

Jennings' rise has been quick. In 2008, he was the first U.S. basketball player to go directly from high school to a European pro league. His unprecedented route — complying with the NBA rule that an American must be one year removed from high school to play in the league — ignited a debate about the virtue of playing college hoops vs. a season of pro ball overseas.

Jennings opened that door. And then he almost closed it after averaging 6.3 points, 2.0 assists and 1.6 rebounds in nearly 18 minutes a game in Italy.

It is difficult to reconcile those pedestrian statistics vs. Jennings' impressive NBA stats. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Jennings wasn't ready for the NBA.

But statistics alone couldn't tell the story. In Europe, young players, even stars, pay their dues on the bench, and the style of play didn't always accentuate Jennings' talent, says Billy McKinney, the Bucks' director of scouting.

"I believe there was a misunderstanding as to exactly what took place in Europe," Hammond says. "You talk to players who played with him. You talk tothe general manager. You talk to the coaches. Then you watch him play and practice and see the work ethic he had.

"There was a body of work in which to judge him."

This is what the Bucks discovered in their scouting:

• Jennings learned to handle physical play against grown men, Virtus Roma forward Andre Hutson says.

• He became a better defender and improved his court vision, Virtus Roma general manager Piergiorgio Bottai says.

• Deliberate half-court offensive sets prepared him for the NBA, McKinney says.

• Jennings says he learned "winning is the most important thing. It's not about the individual."

McKinney says what really sold them was the pre-draft workout that included Jennings and fellow point guards Ty Lawson, Jonny Flynn, Eric Maynor and Jeff Teague.

"He had court vision that was just bizarre," McKinney says. "It was off the charts in what he saw and how soon he saw it. I left the workout shaking my head with some of the things I saw him do."

The Bucks drafted him 10th overall in June and signed him to a two-year, $4.5 million deal with team options for 2011-12 and 2012-13. But Jennings got off to a rough start.

Shortly after he was drafted, rapper Joe Budden broadcast on the Internet a live video of a phone conversation between him and Jennings. It was video meant to be seen in real time once. But someone recorded it and posted it on the Web.

The conversation was filled with obscenities from both. Jennings disparaged the New York Knicks and other point guards.

"It was an eye-opener for him," McKinney says. "Sometimes your most painful lessons can be your best ones in life."

Jennings has been more careful about whom he trusts and what he says. "Not everyone is your friend," he says.

Europe vs. college debate

Europe might have helped his game, but whether it helped Jennings more than a year in college would have is difficult to discern.

Despite his frustrations about not playing much, Jennings never stopped working, learning and listening.

"In life, not everything is going to go your way," he says. "You're going to have your ups and downs. The main thing is when things are not going right, what do you do? You go work on them."

Says Bucks coach Scott Skiles: "His default mechanism was to get back in the gym. Not sit around and pout. That's a very good sign."

It helped that Jennings had a strong support system in Rome. He lived with his mom, Alice Knox, and half-brother Terrence Phillips in a three-bedroom apartment.

His attitude also left an impression on Bottai, whom Knox affectionately calls P-Giorgio.

"I can say only positive things," Bottai says. "For me, Brandon is a better man than player. He's a very strong man. He had a very rough season. But he never gives up. He's very intelligent. … He never made one problem."

Jennings won't generalize about the value of his overseas experience. "It's not for everybody," he says of playing in Europe. "A lot of kids should still go to college. … If you're mentally strong and you can handle being away from home, then go ahead and do it."

This season, Jeremy Tyler did just that, the second player to go directly from high school to pro basketball overseas. He skipped his senior year of high school to play in Israel. The New York Times, among others, has reported that Tyler, who initially had no support system, has struggled.

Jennings is not surprised.

"I knew things weren't going to go his way, and I was waiting to see how he was going to take it," Jennings says. "Was he going to quit? Or was he going to be strong or keep working?"

Says Knox, "If Brandon would have been over there by himself … he wouldn't have been able to make it."

Making an NBA impression

Bucks guard Charlie Bell wondered if Jennings was more flash than substance. He called Hutson, his former Michigan State teammate, and got a positive report.

"After getting a chance to know him, this is a kid with a good head on his shoulders," Bell says. "He works hard, and he deserves everything he's gotten so far."

This summer, Jennings formed a bond with Bucks assistant coach Kelvin Sampson. They worked to improve Jennings' shot, which was a gray area in the rookie's game.

The Bucks see him as a scoring point guard and one who distributes the ball, a combination of Allen Iverson and Steve Nash.

Shooting has not been a problem. He went 7-for-8 on three-pointers when he scored 55.

"We need him to get into the paint and create shots for other people, too," Sampson says. "His greatest skill is not his shooting. It's his passing.

"As a teacher, the thing you enjoy about Brandon is that he's a willing learner."

Still, there will be games like the one Saturday, when Jennings scored two points in the first half but finished with 26, as the Bucks beat the Memphis Grizzlies.

"Each time we play now, he's going to become more the focal point of the other team's defense," Skiles says. "They're going to start taking things away from him. He's going to have to make some adjustments, and we're pretty confident he'll do that."

Jennings appears to have found a new home. He has taken note of Milwaukee's old world charm, with its German and Polish influences and ornate Lutheran and Catholic churches.

"It's chill," he says. "It reminds me of Europe a little bit."

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