Ten years ago, then-prep basketball phenom Brandon Jennings decided not to take the one-and-done college route to Arizona and instead opted to play professionally in Italy for a year with a lucrative shoe contract in hand. Looking back, the eight-year NBA veteran, who most recently played in China, has no regrets about his move. And with the FBI now cracking down on college stars receiving extra benefits without getting paid by the NCAA, the current G League Wisconsin Herd guard believes that elite high school stars should consider playing in the G League or overseas instead of taking the one-and-done route in the “billion-dollar business” of the NCAA.
“My decision was for me,” Jennings said. “I always feel bad for the kids because I always felt like the kids should get paid in college, at least something. The NCAA is a billion-dollar business. You’re telling a kid like [Oklahoma’s] Trae Young, who is killing it, and you’re telling me alumni or someone else can’t take him out to a nice dinner?
“I do feel like the kids do deserve to get paid. I have a younger brother at Missouri and he struggles a lot too, sometimes. … Who’s to blame? The NCAA. Whoever is snitching, because whoever is snitching is snitching on everybody, and it is getting out of hand.”
Jennings recently talked to The Undefeated about his unique worldwide basketball career, fatherhood, his hopes for an NBA return, the unity of people and lack of guns in China, his love of eating grilled bullfrogs, Black Panther, Colin Kaepernick and more.
What would you tell an elite high school player considering going pro overseas instead of going to college?
I would say call [former renowned basketball shoe executive] Sonny Vaccaro. That was one of the first people who called me and helped me get where I needed to get to. Take your parents. Don’t go by yourself. And going to Rome was such a great education for me because I learned about the world more. I got to visit seven different countries at 18 and play in hostile environments.
I got to play against [former NBA guard] Travis Best in Italy. I used to watch Travis Best in the movie He Got Game. I played against [former NBA guard] Earl Boykins and guys like that. You become more well-rounded as a person because you’re learning so many different things in life.
Did you apply to get into the G League or did they contact you?
It was both. It was my agent and then also them. But I think they heard that I was back and they wanted to give me an opportunity to play in front of the NBA scouts. I was like, ‘Hell, yeah.’ I really wasn’t doing anything. I was just chilling and working out. My whole thing was if I got back into the league, I just didn’t want to get back in. I wanted to get some reps under my belt [in the G League].
Some former NBA players might have too big of an ego to go the G League route. Where did your humility come from?
I just feel like I’m a world hooper at this point in my life. I started off in Rome. I did the NBA eight years, and then I went to China. China really helped me out a lot because I had a lot of time to myself. I was able to look back at myself, at my whole career and what I could’ve done better and also the positive things. Now I’m at a point now at 28, I’m still young.
I want to play until I’m 35, and I want to make the best out of every opportunity and let people know I can still score the ball. Don’t get it twisted. I can still put that thing in the hoop.
Where are you healthwise right now?
I’m 100 percent. Even with the Knicks, honestly, coming off the bench was such a new thing for me. My whole career I never came off the bench. In New York, I had to come off the bench behind Derrick Rose. And then I had to come off the bench [in Washington] behind John Wall. And John Wall was playing so amazing. He was playing MVP basketball. He was averaging 40 [points] and 10 [assists].
I’m not even in a rhythm. I don’t even feel like myself. I made the decision to go to China. People say, ‘You had to go to China.’ I just told my agent, ‘Yo, I want to go somewhere else where I can play and hoop.’ At the end of the day, I’m just a hooper. I don’t care. I will play anywhere. I just want to hoop.
How was your experience playing in the Chinese Basketball Association this season?
It was awesome. I actually loved it. And I actually don’t mind going back. If I don’t get a look in the NBA, I’ll definitely go right back to China. It’s basketball-crazy there. It’s a billion people. I just feel like I can play longer, too, if I was in China, also.
What did you love about playing in China?
Their love for the game. Their passion. Every arena we went to was definitely crazy. I didn’t know that I had that many fans in China. I was also out there for four months. I didn’t have no drama. No problems. Nobody bothered me. It was real cool.
What did China do for you regaining your game?
Watching the way they approach basketball made me fall in love with it more and more and deeper. I never took the game for granted. But their passion for it and their love made me go harder. They competed every night against me. It is definitely one of the roughest leagues I’ve played in. As far as the skill level, there are no LeBron James and guys like that. But in terms of physicality and the mental part, it is the toughest.
What did you do off the court in China? Did you eat anything exotic?
Yeah, bullfrog. Bullfrog is one of my favorite dishes. Yeah. I was eating frog. They put on all the spices. I would cut it up and everything, eating the frog. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. This is like my favorite stuff.
I visited Shanghai. That was amazing. I took the bullet train from Taiyuan, the fastest train in the world, to Beijing. It was awesome just seeing different things. Also, being the only black person in Taiyuan, I always got stared at everywhere I went. Everyone was staring at me.
Would you like to try playing in another country next season, or are you focused on returning to the NBA?
With my kids getting older, 5 and 2, they all want to see me play. Getting back into [the NBA] is my No. 1 priority. I know I can still play. I can still help. That is my No. 1 priority. But if not, I have to do what is best for my kids. I have mouths to feed. I have to be a father and do what I have to do.
It was tough for them because they were used to watching me play in the NBA and they didn’t get to see me play at all [in China]. That was another one of my motivations to get back, is so they can see their dad play. … I’m just being patient and waiting for the opportunity.
What is playing in the G League like?
I have previously played one game in the G League after I came back from injury. It’s definitely different. The travel is different from the hotels. But I’m just enjoying playing back in America. Everyone was talking about how the competition was so terrible in China. But one thing I can always do is score. It doesn’t matter who I am playing against.
I’m just in a better place mentally. I’m not on an ego thing. I’m just going to let my game do the talking. And if I get called up, I get called up. If not, you know where I got to go. I just got to keep it pushing.
Is the G League the best competition outside of the NBA?
I guess if you’re a young guy and you’re looking to go back into the NBA, it is. Europe is not bad either, though. The Europe game is different. But in terms of outside of the NBA, yes. It’s all NBA rules. It’s the NBA games.
In China, they played 2-3 [zones] and box-and-1 [defense] on me. They had 7-foot-3 guys in the lane just standing there not moving. It was tough. It was different. I haven’t had someone play a box-and-1 on me since high school.
How did the first G League game feel? (Jennings scored 31 points in his Herd debut.)
The first game felt great. That was my first game since Jan. 13. I just have been working out and working on my 3-point shot. If I want to play in the NBA at my age now, I definitely have to be able to shoot the 3. Thanks to Golden State, that is what it is now. If you can’t shoot the 3, you won’t have a chance to win.
Why did you leave China before the season ended with your team, Shanxi?
I hurt my hamstring. I was out for two weeks. Out there it was so rough. The first game of the season I had to play with a sprained ankle because I was playing in practice, and the way they defend in China is different [they chest-bump]. Every time I would shoot, the guy would put his feet under me. They would do illegal stuff. Or, if I would go for a layup, they would knee me so I would fall. It’s so dirty.
I kept getting hurt, little nicks. I was like, ‘This isn’t worth it if I’m trying to get back to the [NBA].’ They just replaced me when I got hurt, and then I came back home. I was like, ‘Thank you.”
What was it like playing against former NBA player Stephon Marbury, a three-time champ in China who retired after this CBA season?
It was cool. It was legendary.
How do you look back on your NBA career, and what do you take from it going forward to help you get back?
I played eight years in the league so far. I want to play over 10, 11. I’m blessed. They said the window in the NBA is three to five years. I had great years in Milwaukee. I was on my way to becoming the player I was supposed to be if I don’t tear my Achilles [tendon] my second year. But just to be able to bounce back from that, still be positive and still have the love for the game, I have no complaints about my career.
With a torn Achilles, I should’ve been done. I shouldn’t have been playing at all. The fact that I had that much fight in me to keep going, to keep pushing, I can take no complaints in my career.
Do you have any advice for New Orleans Pelicans All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear last month?
He has to really get through the rehab. He has to attack it hard and heavy. It’s definitely going to be tough for him. For me, I went into a real depression time when I tore my Achilles. I saw guys got paid. I thought it was my chance. Especially with my whole thing in Detroit, I was bitter. I was bitter a lot just off the fact that I felt like, ‘Dang, this is my DNA.’ I was becoming [a star] and I had to stop.
A lot of it was bitterness, but I had to grow up. Even when I got to the Knicks, I wasn’t over what was going on. That is why I had to go to China to get my head right. I had to say to myself, ‘I’m blessed. I’m still playing basketball. I’m still making millions of dollars playing.’ I had to wake up and being the bigger man with everything.
What impression did the movie Black Panther have on you?
You see how we all [black people] come together to support that. I just feel like if we had that support with each other all the time, there is nothing that anyone else can do. That movie was a message for us as a black people that, look, when we come together, nothing can stop us. Look how powerful we are.
If we can support a movie like that, why can’t we support each other on a daily basis every day? Instead of always killing and always fighting each other, we have to start thinking about it. It is 2018. We can be anything we want today. If you look at social media, all the people who are popular and all the people that are making money, there are ways we can all make money and be successful if we support each other.
How did you follow the black social issues going on in America when you were in China?
The one thing that disappointed me was the lady from [Fox News] told LeBron [James] to ‘shut up and dribble.’ That was one big one. The Colin Kaepernick thing was also another big one I was following. It was sad that was a guy who is speaking his mind about helping the whole world come together, not just the black community, everything, can’t get on a football team, knowing he was better than a lot of the quarterbacks in the NFL.
It was sad watching from a distance. And then being in China, watching the Chinese stick together, we are all one. In America, we can’t get our s— together. It’s sad because it’s ‘The Land of the Free’ and a land where you are supposed to be able to live life. But sometimes it’s not good to have that much freedom.
Another thing about China is no person outside of military and law enforcement can have a gun. What were your thoughts about that?
I went out there for four months. There was no drama. No stress. Nobody bothering me. People were just living life. It is a Communist state, but some of their rules I wish we could have for the betterment of our country as far as the killing and guns. They don’t play that in China. It’s a respect thing.