Among the old sayings from former UCLA coach John Wooden is this: “Never mistake activity for achievement.” It seems fitting when talking about Brandon Jennings‘ defense.
Jennings occasionally picks up his opponent at fullcourt. Once in awhile, he will even create a turnover when needlessly pressuring the ball-handler 35 feet or more from the basket. But, often, whomever Jennings guards has a free trip to the rim coming.
During the first two games of Washington’s first-round series with the dribble-drive loving Atlanta Hawks, Jennings has been scored on at will by Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder. He has not even been able to force Schroder into a counter. Instead, the young point guard either blows by or bumps off Jennings on his way to a layup. In Game 2, even Kent Bazemore, a small forward not known for driving, went around Jennings. Eventually, the Wizards had to send Jennings to guard a corner shooter in order to keep him away from a ball-handler.
“Not just Brandon, but a lot of our guys,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “We have to be able to stay with their quickness. They have some good guards who like to penetrate and play pick-and-roll. [Tim] Hardaway Jr. is very good, improving. Schroder is also a guy that can get to the paint. With Brandon, we just want to make sure he stays in front of the basketball. Force them to take a shot outside of the paint, then we can live with the result.”
Brooks has a challenge. In Game 1, he learned that he cannot put a lineup of only reserves on the floor. He tried it. They failed. In Game 2, he turned to John Wall to bridge minutes at the end of the first quarter with the second unit. That meant Wall and Jennings played together, a pairing that has been suspect throughout the season and was ineffective Wednesday. Wall and Jennings are minus-16 in the first two games. Their pairing seems to negate the strength of each, which is speed with the ball. At times, Brooks has paired Jennings with Bradley Beal (who, at times, guards point guard at the end of games) instead of Wall. The choice of who to play with Jennings fluctuates in Brooks’ view.
“It’s a gut feeling I have,” Brooks said. “Sometimes, it works and sometimes I’m kicking myself in the butt after the game. But, you have to make a decision on one of them. And a lot of it is game situation. Who’s hot? Who needs a break? Who are you guarding on the defensive end — you might need to do extra work defensively if a guy is one of their focal players. But, yeah, I try to make the correct decision on that substitution. I’m comfortable with Brandon playing with either one. That makes it easy on that side. But I also have to find some better offense that we can execute with Brandon and John because they both like to have the ball in their hands. We’re working on some things [Friday] hopefully we can use [Saturday].”
Will it be Wall and Jennings throughout the series?
“No, I’m not set at all,” Brooks said. “It will be game-to-game, half-to-half. I’ve done it where going into the game, I’m thinking one way and I don’t do it in the game. So, it’s more of a gut feel, then it can change in the second half.”
Jennings has never been a good defender. His career defensive rating is 108 (100 is average). This season, it was 113 with the New York Knicks, then 111 after he was acquired by the Wizards. That he was acquired to be the Wizards’ backup point guard despite these issues spoke volumes about what the organization thought it had already on the roster.
His poor defense has not just resulted in baskets for the opposition. In Game 2, Hardaway dribbled by him from the top of the key with a hesitation dribble. Out of position after not moving his feet, Jennings tried to swipe at the ball from behind. The drive forced Markieff Morris to help and resulted in his fifth foul. At times, Jennings is beat so quickly, the help can’t even arrive.
What Jennings has provided the second unit is pace and passing. The former he has always done. The latter is new for him. He joked shortly after arriving about how he had never been told to shoot more until he came to Washington. He was able to put together a game-leveling scoring surge in Game 2 when guarded by 35-year-old Jose Calderon, who, like Jennings, has long been a poor defender. In that matchup, Jennings can get things done. Outside of it, however, his defense has become a problem in this series and will continue to be one should the Wizards advance. There are no more Calderons waiting in the playoffs.
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