October 30, 2009

Clemson counts on Jennings for immediate impact

This is part of our series on freshmen who must make a big impact next season for their teams to challenge for league titles and get to the NCAA tournament.
The desire to stay near his family played a major role in Milton Jennings' decision to commit to Clemson when he was still a junior at Pinewood Prep in Summerville, S.C.

Little did he know at the time that he eventually would have three more reasons to want to remain close to home.

Jennings' mother gave birth to triplets this summer, which has made Jennings even more thankful that his family lives only about three hours away from Clemson's campus.

"They could literally fit right in my hand [at birth]," said Jennings, a 6-foot-9 forward who was the No. 25 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. "It was weird. They were really little. Now I can hold two of them at a time - one on each forearm - and just look at them."

Clemson is counting on Jennings' game to grow at a similar pace.

Although he is the third-tallest player on Clemson's roster, Jennings could make his biggest impact on the perimeter.

Clemson led the ACC by averaging eight 3-pointers per game last season, but the Tigers were blindsided in the offseason by Terrence Oglesby's decision to leave school to launch a pro career in Europe. Oglesby made a team-high 92 3-pointers last season and ranked third in the ACC with three 3-pointers per game.

Jennings could help fill that void. Jennings' statistics from his senior year at Pinewood Prep - 20.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game - make him seem like a classic post player. But he also has 3-point range. In fact, his new teammates indicate Jennings perhaps is more polished as a perimeter shooter than as a bruiser at this point in his career.

"I think he can stretch a defense," senior forward Trevor Booker said. "His shot is looking pretty good right now. Something he's going to have to work on is his inside game. He's rebounding OK right now, but the thing he's going to help us with the most is his shooting."

Jennings didn't play much basketball until he was in seventh grade. And he wasn't exactly an immediate success.

"I wasn't coordinated enough," he recalled. "I wasn't good enough to do anything. I basically just played outside with my friends."

That didn't stop an AAU coach from taking a chance on him.

Rufus McDonald first saw Jennings play in a church league that included his son. Jennings didn't have much of a game at the time, but he was 6 feet 1 at the age of 11. McDonald figured Jennings' game could grow until it eventually caught up to his size.

"He wasn't scoring a bunch of points then, but he was grabbing some rebounds and blocking some shots and he could run the court," McDonald said.

Jennings started working with McDonald every weekend. Before long, he was even staying over at McDonald's house on the weekends.

During their time together, Jennings developed into a more well-rounded person on and off the court. He improved his grades and discipline. And he also brushed up his game.

"We were pretty attached to him," McDonald said, "and he was pretty attached to us."

Though Jennings always was taller than most of his classmates or teammates, McDonald had him work on ballhandling, shooting and other perimeter-oriented skills. That versatility eventually would help make Jennings one of the nation's most highly touted recruits.

King of South Carolina
It's easy to see why Clemson made 6-foot-9 forward Milton Jennings such a recruiting priority. When Jennings signed with Clemson, it marked the first time that the Tigers had signed the No. 1 prospect out of South Carolina since Rivals.com began covering basketball recruiting in 2003. Jennings also is the highest-ranked player to come from South Carolina during that span. Here's a look at the top-ranked players from South Carolina each year since 2003.
YearPlayerRankHigh SchoolCollege
2003F Brandon Wallace*101stAiken Silver BluffSouth Carolina
2004F RaSean Dickey55thBennettsville Marlboro Co.Georgia Tech
2005G Devan Downey36thChesterCincinnati#
2006F Mike Jones40thHopkins Lower RichlandSyracuse&
2007F Sam Muldrow125thFlorence WilsonSouth Carolina
2008F Murphy Holloway133rdIrmo Dutch ForkOle Miss
2009F Milton Jennings25thSummerville Pinewood PrepClemson
NOTES: *-Tennessee signee Major Wingate was the No. 60 prospect in the 2003 signing class, but he transferred from Wilson (S.C.) High to North Gwinnett in Suwanee, Ga., before his senior year; #-Downey transferred to South Carolina after one year at Cincinnati; &-Jones transferred to South Carolina after playing 11 games for Syracuse, then eventually ended up at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College.
Jennings led Pinewood Prep to four consecutive South Carolina Independent School Association Class AAA titles. He won South Carolina "Mr. Basketball" honors as a senior. Jennings also became the first South Carolina-based player to earn McDonald's All-America honors since Raymond Felton in 2002.

Those credentials naturally made Jennings a prime recruiting target for Clemson. The problem was that Jennings hadn't grown up rooting for the Tigers.

"I grew up a South Carolina football fan and a North Carolina basketball fan," Jennings said.

So why did he choose Clemson so early in the recruiting process?

The idea of staying close to home appealed to him. It didn't hurt that Clemson's program had started to make major strides. Jennings committed to Clemson in the spring of 2008, about a month after the Tigers had reached the ACC championship game for the first time since 1962. He went on to become Clemson's first McDonald's All-America selection since Sharone Wright in 1991.

"Milton's a guy we targeted two or three years ago," coach Oliver Purnell said. "He was clearly going to be the best player in the state and one of the best in the country. We went after him very, very hard and paid a lot of attention to his recruitment and to the people around him.

"At the same time, our program was on the rise. So I think the energy of our program and the amount of energy we spent with him - those two things colliding at the right time - made him feel, 'Man, this is the place I want to be.' "

That strategy paid off when Jennings made an early commitment to Clemson.

"They did a great job recruiting Milton," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "They identified him early and really went after him hard. His recruitment was one of those where a lot of schools that would have pursued him didn't pursue him because it sort of looked early on like he was headed to Clemson."

Clemson's aggressive recruiting of Jennings paid off in more than the obvious respect.

The prospect developed an immediate rapport with his future coach. Jennings cited Purnell as one of the major reasons he chose Clemson. Their relationship could allow Jennings to make an easy transition to the college game.

"He truly cares for his players," Jennings said. "Every coach has to care about their players, but with him you can definitely see it. He's always there. He's very motivational. If you have a problem, you can talk to him. He's basically like a father figure at the same time he's a coach."

Jennings is looking forward to working alongside his new father figure as much as he is enjoying his role as a big brother.

"Just like anyone would [be thrilled] naturally, all of a sudden you've got these three bundles," Purnell said. "He genuinely seems excited about that."

Jennings can't wait to make Clemson fans feel equally excited.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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