By Dave Krider
2007-2008 MaxPreps National Player of the Year
Brandon Jennings, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.)
Two years at Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) have transformed Brandon Jennings from a basketball player with a shallow work ethic into a dynamic leader who set four major scoring records as a senior. For his efforts, the 6-foot-1 guard has been named MaxPreps National Player of the Year.
The records, which are especially impressive due to the Warriors’ large number of NBA products, are:
-Points in a game, 63; the record was 61 by Calvin Duncan in 1981.
-Points in a season, 1,312; the record was 980 by Josh Smith in 2003-04.
-Average for one year, 35.5; the record was 30.6 by Orlando Vega in 1987-88.
-Career points, 1,927; the previous record is uncertain.
As a junior, Jennings transferred from Dominguez (Compton, Calif.) to Oak Hill where he came under the coaching of ultra-successful Steve Smith, a no-nonsense guy who has dropped more than one high school All-American for a bad attitude.
Smith told MaxPreps, “He has gone from the guy we had to drag to the gym to working out (on his own) at in the morning. He has really matured as a leader and with his work ethic. I had to suspend him one game as a junior. It was a turning point. He went from that to being our team leader this year.
“I don’t know if I can take credit for it,” he added modestly. “I think the move and the environment also helped.”
Jennings remembers his suspension vividly. He related, “It was five weeks into school. At practice I wasn’t going hard. He told me to run the next morning and I didn’t go. He suspended me and that’s when I realized he wasn’t playing.”
The point guard-supreme got his start playing basketball with his older cousins at the tender age of three. Two years later he was playing in the Rowley Park League in southern California, even though the minimum age limit was seven years old.
“I was just hanging with the big kids,” he said matter of factly. “Everything just came natural. Playing against older competition all of my life helped me a lot.”
At age 11, he was starting at guard for the Rancho All-Stars. That enabled him to make his first plane trip – to Florida for the YOBA Tournament. His most vivid memory, however, was facing a towering 6-1 opponent “who blocked all our shots. Parents in the stands were saying, ‘Oh, no, he can’t be 11.’ ’’
When he turned 13, Jennings got his first true taste of the big time and what the future would hold for him. Playing for the South Coast All-Stars during the National AAU Tournament in Memphis, Tenn., he “went off for 30 points” in the championship game. That night the nervous youngster did his first newspaper interview and signed his first autograph. Many more have followed over the years.
As an eighth grader, he helped the P. Miller All-Stars reach the National AAU 14-and-under Tournament at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The California crew lost, however, in the semifinals to a team which included Tyreke Evans. Not intimidated by a standing-room crowd, Jennings fired in 27 points.
Jennings enrolled at Compton Dominguez as a freshman and took a secondary role to the upperclassmen. He explained, “I was making the big plays at the end of games – stealing the ball, making the good pass or getting defensive stops, just not scoring. I scored 25 points against Mater Dei (Santa Ana) in the playoffs and that’s how I really got my name out there.”
He estimates that he averaged 12 points, nine assists and seven steals as a sophomore. His high was 30 points in a third-round playoff defeat.
That spring was a very critical time for Jennings, because news leaked out that he was considering transferring from Dominguez. He related, “I started getting a lot of bad press. We had to move out of the neighborhood. We were getting threats – being called traitors. I wanted to better myself as a player and student. I knew Oak Hill was a basketball school. And I had heard from former players that their teachers were real good with the education part.”
The summer before his junior year was a banner one, indeed, because he played with the likes of Kevin Love, Renardo Sidney, Taylor King and Daniel Hackett. They dominated the AAU circuit with a 31-0 record and five major tournament championships. He was the quarterback and estimates that he averaged more than 12 assists.
Then came the big move to Oak Hill. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. “The first two weeks were kind of tough,” Jennings admitted. “I’m a city kid. I was used to seeing the bright lights.” There are no bright lights, of course, at Oak Hill, which is quite isolated.
“I didn’t expect him to be our starting point guard,” coach Smith admitted, “because he only weighed 155 pounds. He was thin and I was not sure how he would hold up. I knew he was going to be great in time. He’s 170 pounds now and stronger.”
Jennings said that he finally got comfortable when the season started. Ironically, even though he felt more “at home,” the team wasn’t home that much during the basketball season due to its demanding schedule. He quickly discovered, “The competition level was way better than playing at home.”
The California transfer was about to blossom and his transition was made easier from having previously known teammates Nolan Smith and Alex Legion.
“My goal was to win the national championship,” he pointed out. “Steve Smith just let me run the show and gave me the green light. We were like the big team in the country and had to be ready to play every day. Having Oak Hill on your chest means everybody is out to get you. I wasn’t really worried about my individual stats. I just wanted to win games.”
And win games they did. The Warriors rolled to an outstanding 40-1 record – losing only to Simeon (Chicago, Ill.) and its star guard, Derrick Rose – and were crowned national champions by USA Today. Jennings averaged 15.2 points and an eye-popping 11.5 assists (No. 2 in school history). In one game he dished out 21 assists. He also averaged 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 steals. He shot 38.6 percent from three-point range and 49.8 percent overall. He shot 74.6 percent from the free throw line.
Entering his senior year, Jennings expected more of the same. He wanted to average 14 points and 18 assists. However, standouts Willie Warren and Malik Story left the team early and Jennings was thrust into a role he had not expected. He would have to score at least 30 points a game (some said 40) for the Warriors to win against what annually has been the nation’s toughest schedule. In addition, he still would have to be the quarterback and leader for a very young, inexperienced team.
Even though it was by design, Smith warned Jennings that he probably would be criticized for not being a “pass-first” point guard. Saddled with a depleted bench, Smith admitted, “I always worried … if he gets really shut down. We saw box-and-one, triangle-and-two, etc. He obviously made plays that were exciting. The only fault I had offensively with him all year was that he would take about two shots a game that he shouldn’t take. But some times he would make those shots.”
Despite carrying great pressure on his slim shoulders, the 6-1, 170-pound Jennings exploded early and often.
During a December headliner in Texas, the Warriors ended Duncanville’s 52-game winning streak, 78-77, in an overtime thriller. “I was really sick the night before the game,” Jennings revealed. “I was feeling pretty weak. The game was sold out and for some reason, the flu went away.”
Jennings, who scored 36 points against the defending Texas Class 5A champions, went from goat to hero late in the overtime. He allowed a defender to steal the ball from him, but quickly stole it back and passed to a teammate who scored the winning basket.
Having signed with the University of Arizona, he was happy to play Dudley (Greensboro, N.C.) on his future home court in Tucson. He drilled his first nine shots and wound up with a big 49-point evening. “I wanted to show the fans, hopefully, what they’ll be seeing next year,” he said. “It felt like home and I can’t wait until next year.”
But he saved his best for another North Carolina team, Raleigh Bonner Academy. On that occasion, he was untouchable en route to a school-record 63 points. “I was just on fire from the get-go,” he described. “I hit a three and I just went on from there. I had around 40 at the half and finished with 13 threes.”
Smith noted, “I took him out with five minutes to go. He could have scored 75 that night.”
In addition to this year’s lofty 35.5 scoring average, Jennings averaged 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals. He shot an outstanding 50 percent from the field (470-940) and 35 percent from three-point land (138-392). The Warriors finished with a 34-4 record, even though Jennings was the only senior starter.
His many school records “make me feel good. I’ve passed up players like Carmelo (Anthony) and Josh Smith – all the great ones. I feel great about that.”
The big numbers are paying off with national honors. In addition to MaxPreps, he has garnered National Player of the Year awards from Naismith and Parade. “I’m going to tell my mom that we have to have a ROOM for all my trophies,” he laughed. “They’re spread all around the house right now.”
Jennings has made Smith proud in another area by raising his GPA to a creditable 2.8. He explained, “He works at it. When he got here, he wasn’t a great student. He doesn’t want to be an average college player. He wants to play in the NBA some day. He has really matured.”
The Oak Hill superstar eagerly awaits college. He plans to “get stronger and learn to play defense – go hard all the time. Sometimes the game gets boring. I can’t wait for next year because I love to be challenged.”
At Arizona he plans to major in business. “I want to own a big shopping center,” he revealed, “because that’s where the money is.”
His goal fits in nicely with his favorite hobby, which is shopping. “I love clothes,” he said. “I just like fashion and I really love shoes – the Jordans. I have over 100 pairs of basketball shoes.”
Looking back two years at his transfer to Oak Hill, Jennings said, “I think I made the best decision of my life so far. I was able to just focus on basketball and school. That’s why I got to another level.”
Past MaxPreps National Players of the Year
2007 – Kevin Love, Lake Oswego (Lake Oswego, Ore.)
2006 – Greg Oden, Lawrence North (Indianapolis, Ind.)
MaxPreps “All-American Week” Lineup
Wednesday – Boys All-American Team
Thurdsay – Girls National Player of the Year
Friday – Girls All-American Team