Toss-up: Better free-agent point guard: Brandon Jennings or Jeff Teague?
When Chris Paul was quickly locked up by the impressively aggressive Clippers, the appeal of this year’s class of free-agent point guards shriveled. There are talents beyond Paul, to be sure, starting with the next two in line: Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings, both of whom are odd free agents to price. Neither has a hope of achieving Paul’s level of superstardom, and both carry easily noticed caveats and faults to their otherwise solid production. They’re clearly talented enough to warrant interest, but their status as restricted free agents means that an interested team would have to make an over-the-top offer to have a serious chance of prying them away from their incumbent teams.
Adding intrigue, the Hawks and Bucks have discussed swapping their respective restricted free agents, prompting the question: Which is the better player?
Offense, with the ball
Neither Jennings, 23, nor Teague, 25, is fully formed. Both need to keep refining their games and make better use of their basic skills.
In Teague’s case, that’s understandable. The 2012-13 season was just Teague’s second as a full-time starter, and his first without Joe Johnson carrying a hefty portion of the offensive load. For that reason, he’s still feeling his way through the basics of being a ball-dominant guard and still has obvious limits navigating the pick-and-roll. It might seem worrisome that a quick, athletic guard like Teague wouldn’t be able to score more effectively when aided by a high screen, but orchestrating pick-and-roll play requires natural scoring aptitude, outstanding court vision or repetition through experience. Teague needs more time and guidance to improve his ability to work through the traffic that the pick-and-roll so often creates, but his quickness off the bounce and shooting ability form a great foundation from which to build.
Jennings, on the other hand, seems to have hit a snag in his development. Despite playing starter’s minutes (34.6 on average for his four-year career) since being drafted in 2009, Jennings is still taking many of the bad shots that held back his performance in his rookie season. He’s quick enough to get to the basket but doesn’t get there nearly as often as he should. Some of that can be chalked up to a Milwaukee offense that was never quite right — or quite talented enough — under Scott Skiles, but Jennings still should have progressed more as a passer or scorer than he’s demonstrated thus far.
In particular: For a player regarded for his ability to get buckets off the bounce, one would think that Jennings would be better in isolation. And yet, he shot just 28.5 percent in those situations last season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, while turning the ball over on 13.5 percent of those isolation plays. Both are pretty horrid numbers and serve as a reminder that Jennings isn’t generating quality offense on his own, and he hasn’t quite figured out how to play well with others either.
Teams will still be enamored with what Jennings might someday be able to do with his evident off-the-dribble flair. But last season he attempted just 36.8 percent of his shots in the paint, making just 43.1 percent; Teague registered 57.8 percent of his shots in that zone and made 50.8 percent. Jennings too easily falls for the allure of instant gratification, opting to fire quick jumpers rather than see plays through. He could get better looks for himself and his teammates if he were more patient, but he has seemed far too willing to settle and far too eager to attack opponents with the most inefficient shot in the game. Whether that tendency can be bucked remains to be seen, but Skiles and Jim Boylan had little luck in that regard.
To be fair, Jennings’ style does translate to low-turnover basketball, as his shoot-first instincts put fewer borderline passes into play. For that reason, Teague gives more possessions away (3.2 turnovers per 36 minutes versus just 2.5 per 36 for Jennings) while making more plays (7.9 assists per 36 to Jennings’ 6.5), though Jennings also misses shots more often (39.9 percent from the field to Teague’s 45.1 percent) while hoisting up a greater number of attempts.
Again: Neither player is anywhere near his peak. But Teague simply seems the safer bet. He’s both earlier on his developmental path (and thus less set in his ways) and a less problematic playmaker overall.
Offense, without the ball
Jennings and Teague are both coming off seasons in which they shared a backcourt with another ball-handling guard and did decent (and by the percentages, nearly identical) work as spot-up three-point shooters to space the floor for their teammates.
But that’s where the similarities end. Teague has proved to be noticeably more effective in curling around screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers than Jennings, who moves off the ball roughly as often but with less impressive results. Some of that is simply a product of Jennings’ already described tendency to take the first shot rather than the best shot, which then pits his bevy of mid-range jumpers against Teague’s jumpers, floaters and layups. If Jennings were an exceptional shooter, he could get away with those looks. But he’s merely a competent one, leaving any direct comparison to favor the headier decision-maker. It’s no coincidence that Teague tends to create more points per off-ball possession (curls, cuts, dribble hand-offs, etc.) than Jennings.
Still, Jennings and Teague both use the majority of their possessions to either create shots off the dribble or to spot up in fairly static fashion, rendering these off-ball contributions as a relatively modest consideration. There’s a clear difference in scoring efficiency between them, but because of both players’ roles as central ball handlers, we’re talking about a cut of less than 10 percent of each player’s overall scoring. That’s still worth dissecting and analyzing, but not so prominent as to sway the discussion.
Advantage: Functional draw, though leaning Teague.
Teague isn’t a plus defender by any means, but he works to keep his man in front of him and seems to understand the value of blocking off driving lanes to the rim. Where he comes up short is in a baseline intuition. Teague struggles to sift through the fakes and moves that the league’s sharpest scorers employ, though in that he’s merely as dupable as a run-of-the-mill NBA defender. Contenders can get by with merely passable defensive pieces on the perimeter, and Teague’s relative inexperience at least leaves room for considerable improvement.
Jennings, on the other hand, has become genuinely depressing to watch on the defensive end. Early in his career, Jennings was an irritant for one of the best defenses in the league. That was quite an accomplishment for a player who was thrust into a starting role with no college experience (Jennings spent a season playing overseas in lieu of a one-year stint in the NCAA in order to comply with the league’s age limit) and seemed to bode well for Jennings’ trajectory on that end of the floor. He was quick enough to keep pace with speedy opponents, agile enough to maneuver around screens and possessed an evident talent for poking away live dribbles and challenging opponents with his hands.
If only that were still the case. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused such a drastic change in the tone of Jennings’ defense, but of late he’s succumbed to laziness and a mess of self-destructive habits. He begins each sequence at a disadvantage by defending upright. Rather than step up to attempt to control an opponent with the ball, Jennings lets his foe close that gap. In the process, Jennings surrenders open jumpers, sets himself up to be easily screened and allows his opponent to build momentum on drives to the rim.
That concession would make it difficult for any defender to keep pace, but Jennings further butchers his coverage by turning his body rather than shuffling over to impede his opponent. It’s amazing just how little Jennings moves laterally at this point, opting instead to reserve his effort for a desperate attempt to poke the ball away from behind after his mark passes by. Granted, Jennings is better at that playground maneuver than most, but that brand of defense is just laughably unacceptable from an NBA point guard — much less one who had once shown such aptitude.
Advantage: Teague, by default.
Jennings is the bigger name and would make the bigger splash as a potential addition, but Teague has the edge in most every regard but raw scoring volume. It’s a closer decision than it should be because of just how good Jennings could be if he didn’t so easily submit to his vices. Right now, though, Teague is the more promising shot creator, the more efficient off-ball scorer and the less harmful defender.
UPDATE: Teague has reportedly signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks. The Hawks have three days to match the offer.