Brandon Jennings: The Journey Never Ends
Brandon Jennings leans back in his office chair, surrounded by neat piles of shoeboxes and photos of the biggest moments of his young career, facing a whiteboard loaded with motivational sayings like, "How Bad Do You Want 2 Be Great?" and "think about how many of our fears come from how we think other people will perceive us."
Jennings has never worried about people's perception of him. As a top-ranked teenager, he set the basketball world on fire, then fanned the flame by playing overseas; and now, as the first basketball player signed by Under Armour, he's prepared to put the NBA on notice: everything he does, he does on his own terms.
Wearing a shirt that says "Don't Hate Me" on the front and "Hate My Game" on the back, Jennings thinks about what makes him different. "I like to be first and I like to be a trendsetter," he says. "I just do things in my own lane."
The Numbers Don't Lie
The journey for Jennings started in a single-parent home in Compton, Calif. "We had what we had," he says. "My mother did what's best for me and my brother; she sacrificed for the two of us." That enabled Jennings to pursue basketball. When he was only 13, he led the Rancho All-Stars to the AAU national championship game. "That was the first time I felt like I was the best player on the court," says Jennings. "We won the whole thing. I came out of that being one of the top players in the country."
After playing for Dominguez High in Compton as a freshman and sophomore, Jennings transferred to the prestigious Oak Hill Academy (Va.) for his junior and senior seasons. "It's a school that plays on the national level," he says. "You play against the best competition every year." As a junior, Jennings led Oak Hill to a 40-1 record and the USA Today National Championship.
At Oak Hill, Jennings started to define his work ethic. "It was not odd to see Brandon heading to the gym to work out on his own at 6 a.m. most weekday mornings," says Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith. In February of Jennings' junior year, Smith witnessed a defining moment. Oak Hill was down by two points against Concord (N.C.) with six seconds left, no timeouts and Concord on the line for a one-and-one. When the first shot clanged off the rim, Jennings grabbed the rebound, dribbled the length of the court and pulled up for a jumper from 25 feet away.
"He drilled it as time expired, a threepointer to basically save our season," says Smith. "It was a big-time shot by a big-time player. He wanted the ball in his hands. I knew from that moment on how special a player he was going to be."
In his senior year, Oak Hill started Jennings along with two sophomores and two juniors. "For us to win, Brandon had to be a scoring point guard," says Smith. Although he was preceded by famous Oak Hill alumni like Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith, Jennings holds the school records for most points in a season (1,312), highest scoring average in a season (35.5), and most points scored in a single game (63). He set all three as a senior. Oak Hill finished 34-4, ranked #3 nationally.
"Me and Coach Smith always go back and forth about who was the best player to ever come out of Oak Hill," says Jennings. "Of course, I think I am. It's all on paper. And the numbers don't lie."
No Days Off
When it came time to pick a college, Jennings faced the reality of the NBA age limit. You can't enter the draft until you turn 19 or a full NBA season has elapsed since you graduated from high school.
Jennings had made his mark on the national scene with both his skill-set and his personal style. Not only was he one of the highest-ranked high school players in the country, he was also getting noticed because of his hair—like the '80s-era high-top fade he wore at the McDonald's All American game, or the slanty Gumby cut he sported at the Jordan Classic. There was already something rare about Jennings, something beyond stats and success. But his next decision set him apart from his peers more distinctly than any haircut possibly could.
Jennings was the first player to play ball professionally overseas rather than go to college, signing a deal with Lottomatica Virtus Roma of Italy instead of attending the University of Arizona. And he also signed with Under Armour, becoming the first basketball player to endorse the UA brand.
At the age of 18, Jennings found himself playing against men twice his age. Although his amateur career had been full of highlights, in Italy he was more of a role player, averaging only 5.5 points, two rebounds and two assists per game. Still, the experience helped him grow as a basketball player and as a man. "It's all about winning," he says. "At the end of the day, it's not all about one player."
Out of his element, Jennings nevertheless adjusted to the European mentality. "It's just a different lifestyle," he says. "On the road, you had a roommate. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together. We traveled together. We traveled commercial. Sometimes, we might take a bus ride. You have to bring your own shoes to the game. So, it's a totally different thing from the NBA."
"Trust Me on This"
Entering the 2009 NBA Draft, Jennings was selected 11th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks—the next milestone in his journey. At 6'1" and 160 something pounds, the rookie point guard showed his scoring talent early. In the seventh game of the season, he dropped 55 points on the Golden State Warriors, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 50 in a game, despite the fact that he was shut out in the first quarter.
From Oak Hill to the NBA, Jennings always had elite talent. But after two up and down seasons, and faced with the NBA lockout, he decided this past summer to devote himself to training at the Under Armour campus.
You might think this was a PR ploy to raise his profile during the lockout, but it was not. Jennings is the one who reached out to UA.
As he pushes himself through a set of Explosive Push-Ups on an upsidedown Bosu, Jennings hits the last rep with the same form he displayed in the first. He gets a slap on the back from his trainer Nate Costa, co-founder and owner of FX Studios, Under Armour's official training partner. "You're an animal today, man," says Costa. But Jennings was an animal all summer, with Costa putting him through workouts Monday through Friday.
UA gave Jennings more than free access to the gym. They also set him up in an office and granted him a title—"Curator of Cool." In addition to training, he worked on developing his line of signature shoes, the Micro G Bloodline. "The new shoe is actually a story about my life, where I've been," he says. Different colorways, like the ones for Roma and Oak Hill, commemorate the various stops on his journey.
At Under Armour, Jennings packed on 15 pounds in the gym and came to work every day to learn the business of performance apparel and footwear. In the gym, Costa watched film of Jennings to identify his imbalances and adjust his program to suit his needs. Jennings is a lefty, and that side of his body was more dominant. "On the court, he's got speed," says Costa. "Everything we do here is trying to translate into a solid foundation without losing his quickness."
Costa prescribed a flexible program, which minimizes the importance of rep ranges. "I try to get their mind into form and away from numbers," he says. "On day two, I had to give him the 'trust me on this.' By the second week, we were doing chest bumps."
STACK watched Jennings perform a workout that incorporated combination lifts like the TRX Squat Row, DB Push-Up, Row, Reach Press and Squat with Overhead Reach. Rest periods were short, and most exercises were performed only once.
The non-stop, gut-check nature of the workout was meant to prepare Jennings to be strong throughout an entire NBA game. "His mindset has been mind-blowing to me," says Costa. "He's hands-down one of the hardest working individuals I've ever worked with." Sure, Jennings had trained seriously before. But nothing like this. "I used to lift weights when I was in high school," he says, "but I never went this hard, ever."
Pack a Bag or Two
In addition to grinding out workouts and developing footwear ideas in Baltimore, Jennings spent the summer traveling around the country looking for games. Video of his run at a Dyckman League game in Washington Heights (N.Y.) went viral after Jennings crossed up his defender, bounced the ball off his face and exploded for a lefty layup.
"I've been all over just hooping, just playing," he says. "D.C. is only a 45- minute drive from here. I might go down there and play two games and then come back. When I'm in New York, I might pack a bag or two for a couple days and just show up."
Jennings was a regular in games between the L.A.-based Drew League and the D.C.-based Goodman League, and mixtapes of his highlights blew up on YouTube. In early July, he dropped 51 in a Goodman League game. A week later, he tore the roof off the Melo Center in Baltimore after connecting on an alley-oop off the backboard and finishing with a two-handed dunk. In early August, he laced up a new pair of Micro G Bloodlines and got in a run at the NC Pro-Am.
For Jennings, playing is more about the love of the game than a desire to be great. "It's just proving I can hoop with the best of the best," he says. Of all the places he put it down this summer, Jennings' favorite was Dyckman. "There were maybe 70 people following me down the court while I was dribbling," he says. "Literally, they were on the court while I was getting ready to make my move." Experience in hostile environments should help him once he suits up again for the Bucks. "I guess you could say I'm working on playing on the road," he says.
No matter where he played, Jennings celebrated big plays by hitting a double biceps flex pose, a nod to all his hard work at UA. The training, it seems, is paying off. "I'm dunking more now," he says. "I feel stronger when I'm going to the hoop. And I'm in shape. Once I'm on the court, I never get tired."
Jennings is always looking for the next challenge, the next place to distinguish himself. He's never been gassed up enough to think he's arrived—not when he was backstage at a Rick Ross concert last summer; not when he scored 55 in his seventh NBA game; and not even now that Under Armour has built UA Basketball around him. The company has signed rookies Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams, two of the top 10 picks in the 2011 NBA Draft. But Jennings has a chance to be the face of the brand.
"None of the hype, none of the rankings or anything that they say really matters," says Jennings. After Oak Hill, Italy, Baltimore and Milwaukee, Jennings is ready for whatever comes next. "Nobody cares that you were this top player in high school basketball. All that matters is what you do now."
Train Like Brandon Jennings
Costa hardly ever gave Jennings a rep range for an exercise, and workouts weren't centered on body parts. Sessions had four areas of focus: strength, power, endurance and balance. Costa's training philosophy is grounded in having athletes maintain proper form and mechanics, rather than counting reps. Most exercises were performed only once. "Most people want to go into it saying 'all right, how many do I have to do?' I try and switch that mindset," says Costa. "Depending on the weight, depending on the day, sometime I'll have him do six reps of something. Sometimes I'll have him do 26." Each muscle group is trained with single sets of different exercises.
STACK witnessed Jennings go through a session that combined full-body strength-building movements with short rest periods to train strength, balance and endurance. Here are the key exercises from that session:
TRX Squat Row
- Assume athletic stance holding TRX handles in front of body
- Lower into full Squat position with control
- Drive up to start position while performing bodyweight row
- Finish in upright position with hands at chest
- Repeat for specified reps
Coaching Points: Maintain flat back and proper posture throughout // Maintain control for each rep
Explosive Bosu Push-Up
- Assume Push-Up position with hands on upside-down Bosu
- Perform Push-Up; at bottom position, explode upward while holding onto Bosu. Pull it off floor
- Land in Push-Up position, lower body toward floor and complete for reps
Coaching Points: Do not yank Bosu off ground // Keep natural arch in back
Side Walking Push-Up
- Perform Push-Up
- At top of movement, shuffle hands and feet to step laterally
- Continue for specified distance, then repeat in opposite direction
Coaching Points: Perform in slow, controlled fashion // Do not allow hips to sag // Hold top of Push-Up position for count before shuffling
Sets/Distance: 4x15 feet each direction
DB Push-Up, Row, Reach Press
- Assume Push-Up position holding light dumbbell in each hand
- Perform Push-Up, then row one dumbbell to chest at top of movement
- Keeping body in straight line, rotate into T-shape by pressing dumbbell toward ceiling
- Return to start position and perform rep on opposite side
Coaching Points: Do not allow hips to sag in T position // Perform all reps in slow, controlled fashion.
Sets/Reps: 1-2x8 each side
Squat With Overhead Reach
- Straddle bench while holding light dumbbells
- Sit back and lower into Squat position
- While squatting, slowly raise dumbbells overhead, keeping arms straight
- Lower dumbbells to start position while driving out of Squat
Coaching Points: Do not rush movement // Control descent of Squat