CLEMSON — Take the shot. Milton Jennings heard the message over and over from family and friends since Clemson’s loss at Duke earlier in the week. It’s the same message Clemson coaches have yelled out across gyms to Jennings since the Pinewood Prep product arrived at Clemson.
At Duke, Jennings launched an air ball early in the game and was hesitant to shoot again, taking only six shots in 32 minutes. Confidence has been fleeting for Jennings.
Against Virginia on Saturday, Jennings again missed badly with one of his first attempts and was summoned to the bench by coach Brad Brownell. The Clemson coach knew he couldn’t afford to have Jennings go missing again. Not against Virginia’s top ACC scoring defense, not on a team desperate for offense.
“He had an airball and he came to bench and I was like, ‘Hey man, keep shooting, today we need you. We’re going to need someone to make some shots,’ ” Brownell said. “ ‘You need that mentality to score and be aggressive.’ ”
Jennings reentered the game, and this time he kept shooting.
The former McDonald’s All-American led Clemson to a 59-44 win by scoring 21 points. It was just the second 20-point game of his career.
He grabbed 11 rebounds. He made 5 of 8 3-pointers. He made four 3s in the second half to help desperate Clemson (9-6, 1-2 ACC) pull away from Virginia (11-5, 1-2), including a 3 from the corner with 6:39 to play that gave Clemson a 44-38 lead. Jennings pumped his first after the shot, yelled something and moved back to defend with a bounce in his step.
This is what Jennings can be.
This is what Clemson fans expected the former 5-star recruit to be when he arrived on campus in 2009: a 6-9 forward with the range to stretch defenses. It is the type of effort Clemson needs him to carbon copy often in ACC play.
Can he do it?
Jennings has quietly improved his shooting percentages throughout his career. He’s shooting 42.9 percent from 3 and 46.7 percent from the field, both career highs. But it’s the volume that has been the issue. Jennings is playing a career best in minutes (27) but is shooting as many shots per game (7.3) as he did as a sophomore (7.0).
“I’ve been shooting pretty well. The only problem is I’ve been taking six or seven shots. I haven’t been exerting myself,” Jennings said. “I just haven’t really made the defense guard me.”
Why isn’t Jennings more aggressive as a shot-taker? Confidence is part of it. But coaches say Jennings has a high basketball IQ and can overthink situations.
“I look up at the clock and I see 16 (seconds), so naturally I know it might be too (early) to shoot. It might not be the best shot if I shoot it right there; this is all in my mind,” Jennings said. “Where coaches say you have to take that shot, you have to make people guard you.”
“Take the shot,” is what Brownell yelled out across the court to Jennings on Saturday. Jennings knows he’s running out of shots. He’s a senior. He’s been suspended several times over the last year. Clemson is short on scoring. He knows its time to shoot.