CLEMSON — “Role model” and “Milton Jennings.”
The two phrases seem mutually exclusive.
As he enters his senior season, the Clemson forward has yet to live up to the massive expectations that accompanied him when he signed with the Tigers four years ago.
He was Clemson’s first McDonald’s All-American since Sharone Wright in 1991, and a consensus five-star signee and top-30 national prospect.
For his career, however, Jennings averages just seven points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He endured a stormy junior season that saw him suspended twice – once for an on-court outburst in Hawaii, and a second for off-court issues related to academics. Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Jennings was on “thin ice.”
Now, as Clemson begins practice for the 2012-13 season, he’s being counted on for much more. As one of only two seniors alongside forward Devin Booker, Jennings will be expected to lead 11 freshmen and sophomores into a tough preseason and ACC slate in Brownell’s third season at the program’s helm.
“I don’t want it to end. This is my last year. No holds barred,” Jennings said this week. “I don’t want to make mistakes. I don’t look at it any different than any other season, trying to go out and get wins.”
Brownell seeks consistency from both Jennings and Booker – in their attitude, performance and overall demeanor.
“The thing I’ve talked to Milt about a lot is that he’s an emotional guy, wears his emotion on his sleeve,” Brownell said. “That’s not going to change completely, and that’s OK. You’ve got to get through bad plays, bad times, not have it become negative and seep through our team, because the younger guys are going to be looking at him. I think he understands that and hopefully we’ll see better body language and confidence out of him.”
It is a role that Jennings has embraced. Tuesday, he was the first player on the court for media day interviews, a full 20 minutes before any of his teammates arrived for the scheduled session.
“Getting in early, getting in 20 minutes early and stretching,” he said. “Getting prepared, getting up extra shots, being in class. Leading by example.”
Jennings hopes to build on the way he finished the 2011-12 season. After returning from his second suspension in early February, he finished the season averaging 11 points and nearly six rebounds per game, well above his pre-suspension averages of 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. However, he still finished with only 31 assists against 66 turnovers.
He also nailed 12 of 31 3-pointers over his final nine games after making just four of 17 in his first 19 games.
Dialing long-distance opens up the rest of his game.
“If I’m really knocking down my threes like I did towards the end of last year, I can get in the lane and start getting my mid-range shots,” he said. “It’s my strongest suit. I haven’t done it in the three years I’ve been here, my dribble pull-up. I’ve done it now and again but I need to establish it. The only way I’m going to do that is the inside game and knocking down threes.”
Brownell believes Jennings is talented, but has lacked confidence due to a stop-and-go start to his career.
“You’ve seen it in flashes and part of that confidence not being there is him not being comfortable. Early in his career I don’t think he was very comfortable,” Brownell said. “I think some of the high expectations, being taken in and out as a freshman, it sapped some of his confidence and he got uncomfortable.
“A big part of what I’ve tried to do is make him more comfortable out there. We believe in you, want you shooting these shots. He is an outstanding shooter. That’s coming. When that happens he’s going to display even better body language and better skills because he’s in a good place. It’s not easy to be a good leader when you’re not in a good place. Guys aren’t going to listen to guys who aren’t consistent in their message, consistent in their behavior, consistent in their performance.”
If he can be consistent, then Jennings can truly be a role model for a young roster.
“It goes with playing good games, stringing good games together like I did at the end of the season,” he said. “And having that same mindset. I had a different mindset towards the end of the season.
“Not being able to play, I felt like I let my teammates down – I want to focus on playing with them and winning instead of worrying about myself.”