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Brandon Jennings is learning to be a facilitator

New York Knicks guard Brandon Jennings handles the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Few – if any – teams in the NBA have had as much instability at the point guard position as the New York Knicks have had over the past decade.

In fact, the Knicks have trotted out a different starting point guard for four straight season-openers, and with Derrick Rose up for free agency next summer, it’s highly feasible that the trend will continue for at least one more year.

However, while the Knicks haven’t ruled out signing Rose to a contract extension, there’s another point guard on the roster who’s playing for a new contract, and through the first month of the NBA season, he appears to have made some drastic changes to his game.

When the Knicks inked Brandon Jennings to a one-year contract this past offseason, most assumed that he was an insurance policy for the oft-injured Rose and that the length (and relatively minimal salary) of his contract was an opportunity for him to prove that he was worth a greater investment.

Don’t get me wrong, if Jennings was off to an incredible start and making a huge impact for the Knicks it would have garnered plenty more attention, but for a team that’s fighting to get to .500 and has experienced three straight losing seasons, you have to appreciate the good times for what they’re worth.

Through 17 games, the 27-year-old point guard is posting career-bests with a 3.73 assist to turnover ratio (per NBA.com), as well as a 37.9 assist ratio, which measures the mumber of assists a player averages per 100 possessions used. This stat indicates that Jennings has been more focused on facilitating the offense for his teammates than looking for his own shots.

 

This is where Jennings transformation of sorts should be noted.

On his career, Jennings has attempted 13.8 field goal attempts per game. Granted his role with the Knicks isn’t what it was with other teams in the past, where he was relied upon to carry more of the scoring load, but he’s hardly even looking to shoot this season. Some might consider this a bad thing because as a career 15.2 points per game scorer it seems he might have some value to offer as a scoring option, however, with a career 39/35 shooting split from the field/three, maybe he’s better off deferring more.

This is where things get dicey, as there are quite a few stats that aren’t exactly in Jennings’ favor through the first quarter of the season. Even though 13 of the 15 Knicks to have logged playing time this season have a negative net rating, Jennings -7.1 mark (per NBA.com) ranks him tenth on the team.

And while you can certainly see the impact he’s making on the court in terms of getting his teammates involved offensively, the Knicks offensive rating on the season so far has been 5.3 points per 100 possessions better with him OFF the court. With a -4.4 on-off, Jennings has the fifth worst mark on the team (per Basketball Reference), with two of the players below him being undrafted rookies Marshall Plumlee and Ron Baker, who have combined to play just 39 minutes on the season.

On the plus side, Jennings is playing at the fastest pace of his career (100.23 possessions per 48 minutes) which should bode well for his relationship with coach Jeff Hornacek, who has had success when his teams play faster. At the same time, Rose is also at his best when pushing the pace, and finds himself in eight of the Knicks ten most productive five-man units (per Basketball Reference). Jennings can only be found in four of the top ten.

To be clear, Jennings and Rose aren’t competing for the starting point guard gig, and if they were, Rose has been the better option of the two in just about every way up to this point. Perhaps more interesting, however, has been the way Hornacek has tried to use the two together, showcasing their speed and ability to get others involved (the Knicks average nine more assists per 100 possessions when they share the court). Still, the Knicks’ two point guard lineups have a -5.4 net rating on the season.

You can’t really spin a player with such a negative net rating having a positive overall impact, but for the job the Knicks wanted Jennings to fill, it seems he’s doing a decent job. Jennings has shown flashes of brilliance (he dropped 11 assists and 0 turnovers in 22 minutes last week in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers and had another 11 assist game in a win over the Brooklyn Nets (in which he was a +24 in 26 minutes). There’s hope that as he gets more familiar with his surroundings, he’ll only improve both as a facilitator and a scorer.

Considering Jennings is still essentially recovering from a ruptured Achilles that he suffered during the 2014-15 season, it has to be considered a breath of fresh air that the Knicks have a backup point guard who’s excelling in running an offense and getting his teammates involved.

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