High school hoops star struggles abroad

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David Stern has taken a long look across the Atlantic Ocean and rhetorically shrugged his shoulders at the notion of a European exodus of American talent.

“We are not concerned,” the NBA commissioner said in a recent interview with The Washington Times. “We are confident that the world’s top young players will continue to choose to play in the NBA because of both the level of competition and because they can make more money in the NBA.”

When last season’s consensus No. 1 prep player, Brandon Jennings, headed to Italy instead of college, becoming the first high school player to choose that path since the NBA instituted its minimum-age requirement after the 2005 draft, some observers dubbed Jennings the pioneer of a new era.

“I think we’re going to have a revolution,” said former shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro, who advised Jennings during his decision-making process. “And Brandon Jennings, a kid from Compton [Calif.], is going to start it.”

A month into Jennings’ European experiment, the reverberations of said “revolution” have given way to deafening silence.

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard has all but vanished from basketball’s collective conscious. Jennings is the fourth member of Lottomatica Roma’s backcourt rotation. Buried in the depth chart behind guards like former All-Big East performer Allan Ray (Villanova) and former Ivy League player of the year Ibrahim Jaaber (Penn), Jennings exited the team’s first eight games averaging 4.9 points and 3.0 assists in 17.3 minutes.

Jennings is being well-compensated for his spot duty. Contracts with the Rome-based club and UnderArmour are reportedly earning him in excess of $3 million this season. But the long-term wisdom of his career choice remains questionable. Instead of enjoying a high-profile role at Arizona, where he would have served as the Wildcats’ primary perimeter complement to versatile forward Chase Budinger, he’s struggling to earn minutes for a 4-4 squad in the Italian League. As a result, his draft stock is falling.

“He began the season in the top 10 on everybody’s board, but his slow start has everyone re-evaluating,” an NBA scout said at the Old Spice Classic.

Jennings didn’t respond to interview requests, though his mother recently told the New York Times his transition has been somewhat more difficult than expected under stringent Lottomatica coach Jasmin Repesa, who’s known for his morning and evening practices between game days.

If Jennings slips below the lottery level in next year’s draft, his experience could have a profound impact on future prep superstars considering the most practical path to the NBA. Interestingly, the NBA’s minimum-age requirement, which requires that draftees be 19 and one year removed from high school graduation, wasn’t instituted to protect players from jumping to the NBA too early. In fact, statistics from the drafts of 2003 to 2005 show high school players who entered the draft had a better chance of sticking in the league (73.08 percent) than either actual draftees (63.27) or any other demographic (internationals, underclassmen, etc.).

“I don’t think it had nearly as much to do with the kids themselves as the NBA’s desire to protect its image,” said Rob Harrington, lead high school recruiting analyst for PrepStars. “You had all these NBA scouts at AAU games and high school games, and it just had a very seamy feel.”

If Jennings falls out of the lottery by virtue of his season in Europe, then the rule would have had its intended impact - protecting NBA franchises from making a mistake on a prospective draftee.

“The minimum age rule was instituted to give our teams a better opportunity to evaluate players before they expend valuable draft picks on them,” Stern said.

Of course, the rule has its critics.

“I think it’s a bad rule because it pushes kids with no academic interests whatsoever toward college,” Hall of Fame coach Bobby Knight said.

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