When Milwaukee and Detroit were about to face off on Dec. 4, Pistons television commentators George Blaha and Greg Kelser talked glowingly about Brandon Jennings in ways that were both deserved and justified when it came to the Bucks rookie point guard.
But when the discussion continued in the context of the NBA's Rookie of the Year race, the analysis was about as accurate as Jennings had been during his 7-of-21 outing in Washington two nights before.
Jennings was deemed the runaway leader for the award to that point, with no reference to Kings rookie guard Tyreke Evans and little attention paid to the fact Jennings hadn't shot higher than 33.3 percent in the previous six games. The TV personalities weren't alone in their one-sided view, but they were off-target nonetheless.
Despite Jennings winning the early hype battle, Evans is winning the race as far as this voter is concerned. Sure, Jennings' 55-point outing against Golden State on Nov. 14 was sensational, coming within three points of the rookie scoring record held by Wilt Chamberlain and setting the Bucks mark for a rookie previously held by Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). And it was hardly his only outburst. Jennings had already tallied nine 20-plus-point games entering Saturday while averaging 5.7 assists and three turnovers.
But his shooting downturn has mostly continued, as the player drafted 10th overall shot 63 of 181 (34.8 percent) over the last 10 games. Meanwhile, Evans' early production has put the No. 4 pick in an elite class well beyond the current crop of new talent.
Only Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James have averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists as rookies. Evans entered Saturday's game averaging 20.2 points, five rebounds and 5.1 assists, and his game has been on the upward swing.
In the first five games of the season, Evans averaged 11.2 points on 35.4 percent shooting (22 of 62), three rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.4 turnovers. In his 15 games since, Evans is averaging 23.1 points on 49 percent shooting (126 of 257), 5.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 3.1 turnovers. Evans also has scored the most points of any Kings rookie in the Sacramento era in his first 20 games (403) and is second in Kings franchise history, trailing only Oscar Robertson's 531 points (1960-61).
Phoenix forward Grant Hill has been among those impressed, and the 14-year veteran comes with a unique perspective. While he did win the Rookie of the Year award for the 1994-95 campaign, he barely missed the cut on the prestigious 20-5-5 club by averaging 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and five assists.
"It's not often when you're playing a team that the game plan is to stop a rookie," Hill said. "(But) he runs the show (for the Kings), so we're certainly very keyed in and focused on him. … It just shows how good and how special he is. He can play. He's talented. I think he and Jennings both have a chance to be All-Stars in this league for a long time."
Yet while Evans was expected to produce from the start, Jennings is by far the more surprising story. After his senior season at Oak Hill Academy (Va.) earned him national accolades, Jennings headed for Italy to become the first American to skip college and play overseas while waiting to turn the NBA minimum playing age of 19.
But mysteriously, he was a nonfactor for his Lottamatica Roma team. Jennings averaged j ust 17 minutes, 5.5 points (on 35.1 percent shooting), 1.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists, and his limited role left NBA executives wondering what had gone wrong.
New York president of basketball operations Donnie Walsh spoke candidly recently, admitting he'd misjudged Jennings' ability leading up to the June draft in which he picked Arizona forward Jordan Hill eighth overall.
"If you simply scouted Brandon based on his games, you didn't walk away with much of an impression," said Toronto general manager Bryan Colangelo, who selected wingman DeMar DeRozan of USC with the ninth pick. "I watched him practice for two hours one day, and I walked away quite impressed.