By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Branden Jenkins doesn’t lack for confidence. That’s true when he’s raising up for a jumper or setting up the offense from the point, but it’s especially true when he’s crouched down in a defensive stance.
“He thinks he could stop Kobe Bryant if he had to,” says Marcus King, who coached Jenkins last year at Lee College.
“He thinks he could stop Michael Jordan, too,” adds Duop Reath, who played with Jenkins at Lee last year and lives with him this year.
If Jenkins’ perceptions are only half true, he’s exactly what LSU needs, and he’s returning just at the right time.
The junior and Chicago native, by way of Lee, has returned to full practice this week and has been medically cleared to play by team trainers for the last couple. Johnny Jones has been hesitant to throw his stopper to the wolves too soon, perhaps wary of the re-injury suffered a year ago by Keith Hornsby, who rushed back from a sports hernia, only to miss the season’s end after aggravating the issue.
“He’s a full go,” said Jones. “I’m not sure if he’s 100%, but he’s been released to go ahead and play. He has been for the last couple of games. We just haven’t found that opportunity to put him in. We will hopefully get him going Thursday.
“We didn’t want to put him in a situation prior to conference play…and take a chance on putting him in a situation he could get injured. We’ll look forward to him hitting the floor on Thursday.”
Jenkins is no stranger to playing through pain. He played his sophomore season at Lee with a torn labrum in his hip, averaging 15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game for one of the nation’s most explosive junior college teams. Jenkins actually improved as his injury worsened, scoring 20.7 points per game on 43.4 percent 3-point shooting and 78 percent free throw shooting in February and March.
“He’ll bring a defensive mentality and toughness that doesn’t’ exist for the team right now,” said King. “He’ll come to defend every night, take pride in stopping the other team’s best player. And he’ll rub off on the other guys. If he stops a guy from scoring, he takes more pride in letting you know you couldn’t score against him than vice versa.”
LSU needs that guy at the moment. The Tigers are 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (73.9 points per game) and 14th in field goal defense (43.5 percent) and are coming off a 110-point defensive effort – using the word lightly, there – against Wake Forest. Jenkins had 50 steals a year ago and was Lee’s go-to defender when it came up against a prolific scorer.
“I believe defense starts and creates offense,” Jenkins told me this summer, when he compared his game to Tony Allen, with “a little more skill.”
“If I can get myself going on the defensive end, I know I’m able to go right and left, I’m able to shoot pull ups, I’m able to get to the basket, but ultimately it starts on defense.”
Reath, who has played with him before, can’t wait to see his roommate back on the floor. He, more than anyone, knows how contagious his edge and attitude are.
“He’s going to bring toughness,” adds Reath. “He’s going to play his hardest on defense. He gives everybody around him energy. Y’all are going to see when he starts playing in the game.”
Jenkins has yet to feature for LSU this year, but has dressed out the last few games and undergone a full warmup. He’s looked explosive there, though somewhat gimpy on that left knee.
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 14, 2016
LSU's guards getting up shots. Branden Jenkins is warming up and looks good. pic.twitter.com/rGVaLgKZD5
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 14, 2016
He returned to practice in full after Christmas, though, after going through limited workouts before the break. According to his teammates, he’s looked the part.
“He can be a tone setter out there on defense for us,” said Antonio Blakeney. He definitely has a lot of confidence in his defense. A lot of confidence in his game. Period. But he takes pride in his defense.
“I’m not sure how close he is to 100, but I’m sure he’s close. He’s attacking the basket more, playing full-court defense more. He’s looking more like his regular self.”
And his regular self would fill a obvious void in LSU’s defense. He’ll all but surely begin his career in purple and gold as a bench spark, but don’t be shocked if Jenkins works his way into the starting lineup when his legs are underneath him.
“Wherever coach needs me…I’m capable of playing the 1, 2 or 3,” Jenkins told me at media day. “I bring a different dynamic to the team.”
“He brings a great deal of speed,” Jones said of Jenkins’ game at media day. “Probably one of the most tenacious on ball defenders that we’ve had since I’ve been here. He’s extremely fast, lengthy. He has a desire to defend. He can certainly score, get to the basket really well.”
His offensive game is versatile. His defensive game, though, is vital.
“He’ll bring a little edge,” said King. “Every team needs a guy who can ride that fine line with passion. You gotta have that edge when you got to Kentucky.”
Or, LSU hopes, when you host Vanderbilt.