There usually isn't much college basketball news during the summer, but Brandon Jennings's decision to spend his next year playing pro ball in Europe rather than college ball at the University of Arizona could be a big deal. Thanks to the NBA's one-and-done rule, high schoolers who once would have gone straight to the pros--like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, etc--now have to spend a year in college, which has been a boon to the NCAA. Jennings is the first guy to buck this system. The big question is whether he'll be the last.
When I spoke yesterday to Sonny Vaccaro--the basketball guru who gave Jennings the idea of going the Euro route and is now advising him on the move--he told me that he's already heard from the families of half a dozen or so other high school hoopsters who are interested in having their sons follow in Jennings's footsteps. And he expects to hear from more. "I think once he signs a contract, that'll open the floodgates," Vaccaro said.
I think that may be a bit premature. My sense is that we won't know the true impact of Jennings's move until next year's NBA draft. If Jennings, after having spent a year in Europe, comes back to the States and gets selected high in the first round (which is presumably where he would have been picked this year if he'd been allowed to enter the draft), then I think the floodgates will indeed open. But if Jennings is a late first-round pick, or a second-round pick, or plays so poorly in Europe that he decides not to enter the NBA draft at all, then I think this is a probably a one-off.
So the big question is, is Jennings up to the challenge? As Vaccaro admits, it's not just any 18 year old American basketball player who's cut out for going the Euro route; "I need Jackie Robinson," Vaccaro has said. When Vaccaro was trying to find him, he faced two challenges: most of the kids who had no interest in going to college were ill-equipped--mentally and emotionally--to spend a year abroad; and the kids who were emotionally and intellectually well-equipped for that sort of experience generally wanted to go to college. Vaccaro needed to find a kid who was smart enough to handle college but cynical and/or jaded enough to think that by going to college he'd be exploited, and, even then, Vaccaro needed to start preparing this kid and his family for the hardships he was going to experience living and playing overseas. Vaccaro envisioned a years-long process to get his Jackie Robinson ready.
That's why it's interesting that, until a few weeks ago, Jennings wasn't even on Vaccaro's radar as a candidate for his European idea. Although Jennings started playing in Vaccaro's summer tournament when he was in eighth grade, he wasn't particularly close to Vaccaro. Indeed, the way Jennings heard about Vaccaro's Europe idea was by listening to Vaccaro talk about it on a Los Angeles sports talk radio show. So he's not a guy that Vaccaro has groomed for this. Then again, none of the players Vaccaro did groom for this actually made the leap, so he's got to take what he has. I think we'll know in a year whether or not Vaccaro does indeed have his Jackie Robinson.
P.S. My favorite tidbit about Jennings is that on his high school basketball team's website, he lists his favorite class as "lunch." This can be read two ways: his lack of interest in school stems from the fact that he's just not that smart; or he's smart enough to make a joke about his lack of interest. If it's the latter, I think his European adventure will work out okay for him.