Monday, July 13, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
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Friday night, while all eyes were on Brandon Jennings during the U.S. pro debut of the most talked-about prospect in last month's NBA draft, Jodie Meeks flew under the radar.
For the former Kentucky guard, who was the 41st overall pick in last month's draft by Milwaukee, he hadn't been in that position in awhile.
"Playing at Kentucky definitely had me ready for this," Meeks said. "You're put on a pedestal at Kentucky just like you are in the NBA."
College basketball at Kentucky is different than just about anywhere else in America. Deep NCAA Tournament runs aren't just preferred -- they're expected. The Wildcats got booed off of their home floor following home losses in recent years that were deemed unacceptable by fans. A hoops scholarship comes with built-in rock star status in a town -- and state -- that is essentially a fishbowl dyed in blue.
And while his 14 points quietly helped push the Bucks to a 65-59 win in their summer league opener against Dallas, Meeks is coming from a position where his game took a backseat to no one else's.
After two injury-riddled seasons in Lexington, Meeks blew up last winter, averaging 23.7 points per game for the Wildcats, including a school single-game record 54 against Tennessee on Jan. 13.
At 6-foot-4, Meeks's ability to shoot 46.3 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent beyond the arc got him on virtually everyone's draft radar.
But that didn't make his to leave early decision an easy one.
After two seasons at Kentucky that never quite lived up to the program's lofty standards, coach Billy Gillispie was fired and replaced by John Calipari, who swooped in from a successful run at Memphis.
Within weeks, Kentucky went from a second-round flameout in the 2009 NIT to a legitimate national title contender for next season thanks to Calipari's magical recruiting touch.
He locked down commitments from 5 recruits listed in the top 40 among the current senior class, according to Rivals.com, including the class's top two prospects -- North Carolina point guard John Wall and Alabama big man DeMarcus Cousins.
Combined with the announced return for a junior season from star forward Patrick Patterson, and Kentucky was all of a sudden dripping with buzz, hype and promise.
"It was very hard," Meeks said of his decision to stay in the draft, which he waited until the last possible second to make. "I think these last three years I had at Kentucky were great, I love the fans, love the program, but I felt like it was time to move on."
That was the case even though a first-round draft slot wasn't guaranteed. And leaving school early for the draft without that guarantee is a pretty big risk, as only first-round contracts come with guaranteed money. The second round of the draft is basically a game of craps for prospects.
"I think once June 15th came and I decided to stay in the Draft, I told myself that I was gonna not look back and not regret anything. No matter what happens, I'm gonna be happy. I'm a Wildcat at heart and I'll be rooting for them, but I'm happy with the decision I made."
One close friend who agreed with the decision is former Kentucky teammate and roommate Derrick Jasper, who transferred to UNLV following his sophomore campaign in 2008. Jasper was on-hand Friday at Cox Pavilion for Meeks' pro debut.
"I was surprised with his decision to leave UK at first, especially with how talented of a team they have returning," Jasper said. "It would have definitely been a tough decision, with all that is at stake, but Jodie had one of the best years in Kentucky history and has worked extremely hard to overcome injuries and coaching changes throughout his years at UK. I think he got what he deserved."
Jasper said he couldn't help but feel proud of his close pal while watching on Friday. Meeks didn't get away from his bread-and-butter -- creating good mid-range looks for himself and simply hitting them. He went 6-of-9 from the floor and was both fearless and confident from start to finish. He duplicated that efficiency on Sunday night in helping Milwaukee to an 80-69 victory over Cleveland, pouring in 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting.
"That's a little bit of my game, but my main focus is trying to play solid on the defensive end and not taking bad shots," he said afterwards.
Defense is what Bucks assistant and summer league coach Kelvin Sampson said will be the focus for Meeks once training camp comes around in the fall.
Much of Meeks's offensive success comes from being able to get open by working around screens and running opponents around until they get lost and leave him open to release one of his buttery jumpers.
In the NBA, he'll have to be able to defend it, too.
"We call it a game, but he's gonna have 28-year-old men that know how to rub him off of screens and shove him and create separation," Sampson said Friday. "You've got a guy like (Detroit's) Rip Hamilton, he's gonna run him around, in and out of those screens. Run him ragged. Then on ball screens, he's gonna get nailed and he's gonna think the Titanic is hitting him.
"We ran a lot of stuff for him tonight, because one thing he can do is shoot it. In this league, if you can shoot it, you've got a future."
There's no question that Meeks can do that, but now everything else just needs to fall into place.
The Bucks hope it falls into place just like he fell into their collective lap.
Combined with scooping up Jennings in the first round, grabbing Meeks in the second round made it feel like a successful night for Bucks general manager John Hammond.
It's an organization that has traditional had success in finding value in the second round. Coincidentally, one player Meeks was compared to coming out of Kentucky because of his light shooting touch from all over the floor -- perennial all-star Michael Redd -- was taken No. 43 by the Bucks back in 2000.
"I think a lot of people are saying around their second-round pick 'We didn't expect him to be there, we thought he was gonna go in the first round,'" Hammond said. "Well, I'll just be another person in that list. We did feel that about Jodie. We thought no way he gets to the second round. When he was there for us at 41, we were elated."
Meeks, with his not-so-typical collegiate experience in Lexington, might also be able to help the younger Jennings -- only a year removed from high school -- in getting adjusted to everything else that comes with being an NBA player.
"Here's a guy in Jodie who's been in a program at Kentucky, where every day in every practice, they're probably going to have three or four beat writers in there," Hammond said. "I've watched him a little bit, and he does have media savvy."
Added Jasper: "Playing at Kentucky, you definitely have all the attention you can handle since the Wildcats are basically treated like an NBA team anyway. But Jodie is so physically and mentally tough, that he'll be able to handle leaving college early."
He now heads off to get settled in Milwaukee, which in the basketball world is on the other end of the earth in comparison to Lexington -- or the entire state of Kentucky, for that matter.
The Bucks haven't been to the playoffs since 2004, and have averaged just 31 wins over the past four seasons. And if the second round truly is the same as craps, Meeks certainly didn't appear to roll a 7, as he's in a situation where he could get opportunities to play early.
Should Meeks end up being part of the solution, he'll know how to handle it. That's apparent already.
"You know, one thing I like about him is he's a high-integrity kid, high-character kid, and he wants to do well -- He's an easy kid to coach," Sampson said. "I don't know that because of his makeup, and just observing him now since last Monday, I'm not sure we should give Kentucky credit for that as much as we should give him credit for that."