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Prep star is considering pro basketball in Europe

June 25, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

As former Southern California prep basketball star Brandon Jennings awaits SAT results that will determine whether he is eligible to be Arizona's starting point guard, he is exploring another option: Signing with a European pro team for one season.

If he takes that route, Jennings would become the first high school star to go overseas, rather than spend a year in college, under the NBA's 2-year-old rule barring players who have not turned 19 by July 1 of the respective draft year.

"If he's not the first, someone else will be soon," longtime shoe company advisor Sonny Vaccaro said this week. "Without getting into specific numbers, the kid will do well. He can be marketed immediately with shoe company money, and the kid who does it first will make an international splash.

"Knowing Brandon's personality, and with him seeing the practicality of this, I think he'll do it. Eligible or not."

Jennings, in a statement to The Times released by his attorney, Jeffrey Valle, said, "I am very interested in exploring opportunities to play overseas. Once I get my test scores, I will have some tough decisions to make. At that time, I will sit down with my mom [Alice Knox] and Mr. Valle to make the best possible decision on how to go forward."

As Thursday's draft approaches, an NBA spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the possible precedent-setting nature of Jennings' situation.

The 6-foot-2 Jennings, 18, starred for the last two seasons at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., after living in Lakewood and playing at Southern California power Compton Dominguez High.

Ranked by some prep basketball talent appraisers as the top incoming freshman in the nation, Jennings told last week that he has taken the SAT three times, scoring poorly on the first and so much better on the second that the NCAA red-flagged the result and opted not to clear him for college.

He's due to receive the result of his third test Thursday, said Valle, a Los Angeles attorney. Valle called the score "make or break."

"No decision has been made on Brandon's future yet," Valle said. "He's working through his eligibility issues right now and keeping his options open with Europe.

"If eligibility is a non-starter, then he has no choice but to consider Europe, but he has not decided anything at this point."

A spokesman for Arizona's athletic department said longtime men's basketball Coach Lute Olson is waiting for the test score and "would like to have Brandon here, as we've said all along, as our point guard."

Should Jennings be cleared by the NCAA, Arizona boasts the stability of a consistent winning program and a tradition of grooming NBA talent. Olson has developed NBA star guards Gilbert Arenas, Mike Bibby and Damon Stoudamire, and after a one-year layoff the coach and his program are a better-known commodity compared to the uncertainty of what city or coaching awaits the teen in Europe.

In an e-mail, NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson declined to address Jennings' case specifically. "In general, we certainly believe there is great benefit in attending college and participating in intercollegiate athletics," Christianson wrote.

Jennings appeared destined for Arizona since committing to the Wildcats, but he told the New York Times he heard Vaccaro mention the European league idea on a sports-talk radio show, and pressed his mother to pursue the possibility.

Valle said the NBA mandate that players need to be 19 to enter the draft, which will be conducted Thursday with notable one-and-done stars such as O.J. Mayo of USC and Kevin Love of UCLA, "has its flaws . . . especially to a kid like Brandon.

"The kid, really, just wants to play basketball and make money.

"So, even if he's eligible [for Arizona], it's prudent to look at all the options. The European option is a nice one that presents him good competition."

Kelly Williams, Jennings' advisor, told the player could net $1 million with a European contract and shoe endorsement deal.

"I don't think his family is in a financial crisis, but, certainly, he would be in position to make some money by going overseas," Valle said. "If he could, he'd turn pro right now. It's an interesting concept he's exploring. . . . It's still in the early stages. He doesn't know what the offers will be, he doesn't have an agent."

Vaccaro, who has played host to Jennings at national basketball showcases for five years and said he knows the player and his mother well, said the case exposes "the problem of the world we live in. They force these kids to make these decisions."


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