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Brandon Jennings gives Wizards plenty in reserve

After starting season with Knicks, guard finds home as John Wall’s backup

As Washington Wizards backup guard Brandon Jennings jogged toward the tunnel after his sideline postgame interview that followed Wednesday’s 109-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks, he briefly glanced upward. What he saw made him smile: thousands of fans, some feverishly waving their white playoff towels and many screaming his name.

Later, as Jennings was leaving the locker room to connect with friends, he was asked whether he could have imagined this scene at the beginning of the season.

“Yeah, when I signed with the Knicks I thought we would be in this situation,” Jennings told The Undefeated. “I really thought I would see this type of reaction playing in the playoffs at Madison Square Garden.”

This basketball season started with so much promise for Jennings. He signed a $4.8 million deal with the New York Knicks to be the backup to Derrick Rose, thinking he’d be part of the resurgence of a struggling franchise. The Knicks, some predicted, had amassed the talent necessary to return to the postseason and possibly compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Instead, here’s what Jennings endured: Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony feuding. A team in complete chaos. And, eventually, being waived by a squad that finished 20 games below .500.

Now the Compton, California, native — he has so much love for home that he has the Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles logo tattooed on his left forearm — finds himself playing a key role on a team that many believe can legitimately play with the Cavaliers.

“It’s a very fortunate place to be for me,” Jennings said. “The New York situation was tough. And when I was coming back from my torn Achilles a couple years ago, I wondered how effective I’d be coming back. To be with this team, playing with great players in this environment, is incredible.”

Brandon Jennings #7 of the Washington Wizards brings the ball up court during the game against the Atlanta Hawks during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 19, 2017 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC.

Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The Wizards quickly scooped up Jennings after he was waived by the Knicks. And here’s what the team got: a player who gives All-Star guard John Wall his most reliable backup in his seven years in Washington. That was obvious during a two-minute span Wednesday when Jennings, giving Wall his normal second-half breather, hit three step-back jumpers and fed forward Jason Smith for a game-tying dunk.

When the Hawks called timeout after Smith’s dunk, there wasn’t a happier person in the building than Wall, who ran onto the court and delivered Jennings a hard chest bump.

“I know he likes to pass when he gets in, but he’s a guy who needs to score the ball a lot,” Wall said about Jennings. “I always tell him he has to be aggressive and look for his shot.”

Jennings is familiar with being a shot-maker. He was a scorer in high school at Oak Hill Academy and was considered the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2008. After a year in Europe, he made an immediate impression in the NBA, scoring 55 points in his seventh game, the most points in a game by an NBA rookie since Earl Monroe scored 56 in 1968.

That entire first season was special. Jennings was named to the NBA All-Rookie first team, alongside Golden State guard Stephen Curry, and led the Bucks to the playoffs for the first time in four years, averaging 18.7 points as Milwaukee lost to Atlanta in the first round.

But the Bucks soured on Jennings, trading the restricted free agent to Detroit in 2013. Jennings ruptured his Achilles tendon two years later, and after nearly a year away from basketball he was traded to Orlando in February 2016.

A guy who spent the early part of his career on the path to being an NBA star has this season settled into a role as a backup. Any NBA team would be happy with the numbers he put up as a reserve in Game 2 (10 points, four rebounds, two assists and 4 of 5 from the field in 16 minutes).

“He’s one of the guys where he’s been in the position where he’s been the main guy before, but now things have changed in his career and he’s willing to accept any role he gets,” said Wall, who scored 32 points against the Hawks.

That almost makes Jennings sound like an old man, which is comical considering the two are separated by one year in age (Wall is 26 and Jennings is 27) and one draft class (Wall was drafted with the first pick of the 2010 draft, while Jennings was selected with the eighth pick of the 2009 draft). In high school, the two played against each other in AAU.

“A lot of guys make it seem like I’m old, but I’m only 27 years old,” Jennings said, laughing. “But after my injury, I’m just happy to be with this team in this environment.”

That environment includes one of the best backcourts in the NBA in Wall and Bradley Beal (31 points on Wednesday), as well as a tough front line of Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, who outplayed Dwight Howard, making the Hawks center virtually invisible.

If Jennings can continue providing top-level relief for Wall from a bench that already gets solid contributions from Jason Smith, Kelly Oubre and Bojan Bogdanovic, the Wizards pose a challenge to Cleveland in a potential Eastern Conference final.

The fans chanting his name in the Verizon Center recalled a preseason game in October 2016 when the Wizards played in New York. Jennings, then with the Knicks, played with such fervor in that game, aggressively bumping Washington guard Casper Ware, that the New York fans broke out into a repetitive “Brandon Jennings” chant that demonstrated their love.

“New York seems like so long ago,” Jennings said. “I’m just happy where I am, and being a part of this team.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.