Very few days remain until the Milwaukee Bucks tip off their season October 26th, and although the team as a whole is focused singularly on winning, not every player enters the season with the same goals.
Some, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, need to take the next step and become All-Star caliber players and leaders. Others, such as Thon Maker, need to prove they can handle the rigors and speed of the NBA.
Regardless, each member of the Bucks has something that they should be working towards this next season, something that will come to define their individual efforts. These scenarios differ in terms of impact on the team’s overall success (see the above examples), but there is no player on the roster who is left out in this respect.
Failing to exhibit the desired traits on an individual level will most likely lead to a disappointing season similar to last year. However, should each Buck showcase a new and desired element to their game, the team will almost definitely surpass expectations that call for a down year.
When watching games, any Bucks fan should know what to be looking for in order to gain a true understanding of the dynamics of the team beyond simply looking at a box score.
This week I’ll be looking at the main core of the team, or to put it simply, players of a starting caliber, while next week will focus on role players. This is the group with the largest influence on the Bucks overall success, so it stands to reason that their play will come under more scrutiny.
Can he deal with the new expectations of stardom?
If they weren’t before, the training wheels are officially off for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek’s meteoric rise three years into his career has paid off in the form of a four year, $100 million near-max extension signed last month.
Still at just 21 years old, Antetokounmpo has to be considered the face of the franchise going forward, and one of the league’s brightest young stars to boot. The Freak’s transition to point guard last season electrified his stat line and the rest of the league, if not the Bucks’ overall record.
Going into this season, Giannis will not have the luxury of sneaking up on anyone. Opposing teams will be gameplanning for Antetokounmpo as the Bucks’ number one offensive threat, and he will be treated as a star in terms of expectations.
None of this is to say he isn’t up for the challenge. Giannis has increased his stats across the board by substantial margins every year, and with a roster tailored to his talents, it’s tough to imagine him falling of to the point where Bucks fans would consider his extension a bad deal for the team.
As far as adding elements to his game, Antetokounmpo still lacks a reliable three-point shot, although his play in Olympic qualifiers and going 2-6 from behind the arc in the preseason shows that work is being done on that front.
As a whole though, Giannis will be judged based on the Bucks’ overall performance. He has a group of teammates built to allow him to thrive, a fanbase throwing their support completely behind him, and the tools to revolutionize the NBA. The only question is, what will he do with them?
Can he avoid becoming one-dimensional?
The latter half of last season was very encouraging for Bucks fans, as Jabari Parker showed signs coming back from ACL surgery of becoming the generational prospect he was touted as coming out of high school.
Post All-Star Break, Jabari put up 18.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and is projected to expand on these numbers this season. However, it is important to note how these points came about.
Over 60 percent of Parker’s shots came from within 10 feet last year, mostly due to attacks off the catch and dribble drives. Over the course of the year he began shooting more from longer-range, but shooting 25 percent on .4 attempts per game does not inspire defensive respect that far from the basket.
In the preseason, Jabari has seemingly been reluctant to shoot even when open, which may stem more from an attacking instinct than an inability to knock down the open jumper. Parker has also received many comparisons to New York Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony, and if Jabari wants to take a page from the veteran’s book, he could focus on developing a post-up game.
With a greater offensive repertoire will come a greater likelihood for assist chances or open space for teammates, so, like Giannis, the Bucks as a unit will benefit from an improved version of Parker.
A large reason the Bucks struggled on defense last year was the atrocious defensive combination of Jabari and Greg Monroe at the four and five. Both players were unable to defend in the pick and roll or protect the rim, which often led to chaos for the Bucks in that respect.
Being paired with Miles Plumlee should help clamp down on opponents, but Jabari himself needs to improve substantially before he can no longer be considered a liability.
Fortunately, most of the observed shortcomings impacting his failure last season appeared to be simple mental mistakes that should smooth out with time and experience in the league.
The bottom line for Parker is this: if he can avoid becoming one-dimensional, that is, an effective scorer with no recognizable strengths in other areas, the Bucks will be well on track for success.
Can he dominate opposing benches and command the bench?
For such a controversial and highly-paid player, this goal may seem very simplistic, which underscores the failed nature of the original signing. As I wrote last week , Monroe’s level of fit with the Bucks has degraded to the point where his individual skills may be close to irrelevant.
However, the Bucks have taken steps to provide a better environment for Moose to practice his craft in, even if it means coming off the bench. To Monroe’s credit, he hasn’t showed signs of displeasure with his new role, which may be hard to do just one year removed from signing a max contract.
During the preseason, Monroe has continued to show his prowess as a tireless post scorer, but what may be more important is the hustle and energy that shines through his play. This should be a welcome sign, as the appearance of general apathy was a major complaint regarding Moose’s game last year.
Monroe coming off the bench as a sixth man, as it seems he will, should be a plus for his own prospects and the club as a whole. No longer will the starting lineup contain too many metaphorical mouths to feed, considerably de-cluttering both the ball distribution and spacing.
As a sixth man of sorts, Monroe will be able to demand the ball more than he ever could with the starters, and players like Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry will give Moose more isolation opportunities than he’s seen in his career.
Expecting Monroe to improve on the defensive end would certainly be ideal, but is unlikely. Six years into his career and at 26 years old, becoming a plus defender would be a radical shift the likes of which is unprecedented.
If Monroe can truly dominate opposing squads’ second units, Bucks fans will likely feel a lot better about his stay with the team as a whole.
Can he pair well enough with Giannis to justify his contract?
To virtually any other team in the NBA, Miles Plumlee is not worth the $52 million that the Bucks signed over to him this July. To be fair, the jury still may be out on whether the Bucks themselves overpaid for his services, as it did not appear as if they had any competition in the free agent market.
In any case, Plumlee is back with the Bucks for this upcoming season, and that alone looks to be a major positive for the team. We’ve written countless times about the excellent pairing between Plumlee and Antetokounmpo, and if both are to start together, the results should be positive.
Bucks fans don’t have a previous standard to measure Plumlee against – the former Phoenix Sun only began to see extended minutes towards the later parts of last season and even then did not command attention with his statlines.
If Giannis is to be the catalyst of the offense, Plumlee will likely function as somewhat of a barometer for the team’s offensive success. Should he prove that his excellence in the pick and roll last season was no accident, the Bucks will be in good shape.
It will be tough to evaluate Plumlee’s game individually, as his contributions for the most part lie below the surface of simple statistics, but should his fit carry over into this season, the impact will certainly be felt.
Can he replicate his prior success without LeBron?
Even without appearing in a regular season game for the Bucks yet, Matthew Dellavedova has already become one of the most controversial Bucks players of the modern era.
Perhaps it’s his undrafted, underdog status or maybe it’s due to his rather goofy look and lack of the supreme athleticism and length that have come to define the Bucks. In any case, there are many of those who don’t believe Delly was worth the four years and $38 million the Bucks gave him this offseason.
In a vacuum, Dellavedova’s skillset is exactly what the Bucks are looking for at the point guard position, especially when paired with Antetokounmpo. Although it may have been overhyped after the 2015 Finals, his physical brand of defense will at least be a definite plus to a unit that struggled defending the perimeter last season.
Delly also brings a much needed three-ball to the table, shooting a blistering 46.9 percent from behind the arc in catch-and-shoot situations. This figures to gel nicely with the likes of Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, two more ball-dominant wings with less than stellar averages from behind the arc.
However, when looking at Delly’s previous numbers, it can’t be ignored that he was a member of the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers last year, playing alongside LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and a myriad of other talents.
It remains to be seen what this change of scenery will do to Dellevedova’s numbers, but if his performance in the Olympics is to be taken as any indication, prospects look good.
It appears that the Bucks’ front office agrees in this respect as well, as they have dealt point guards Tyler Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams away in trades, putting the starting point guarf spot squarely in Delly’s hands.
If the Aussie can translate his Cleveland stat line to Miwaukee, Bucks fans will be more than happy with the ideal fit he brings to the team.
Can he introduce an element of consistency to his game?
With four years logged in the league, all with the Bucks, it’s clear at this point what type of player John Henson is. One of the best rim protectors and shot-blockers year in and year out, Henson actually led the league in block rate in what might have been considered a down season.
Of course, this only evaluates one side of the floor. Bucks fans have had lengthy offseason “wishlists” for Henson almost every year, which seem to include the same desired elements. At almost 26 years old, Hook is nearing or at his physical prime, which means adding muscle mass to a skinny, 229 pound frame may be out of the question.
Fortunately, the changing culture of NBA offenses means this may not be as detrimental to the former North Carolina Tar Heel as in years past. On the offensive end, Henson has yet to showcase any semblance of an independent repertoire – although his moniker comes from his affinity for left-handed hook shots in the post, he posted up just 57 times last season to the tone of .72 points per game.
Furthermore, only 5.8% of his shots came from outside of nine feet, making it difficult to pair him with a similarly challenged center like Miles Plumlee or Greg Monroe.
So, if we can’t expect Henson to add any elements to his game, what should his goals be for this season?
In order to see time in a crowded center rotation, Henson must maintain his high-level of defensive prowess, but that should figure to be no issue given his past performance in this respect.
A major factor behind the lack of opportunities for Henson has been his offensive inconsistency. His game log reads erratically; some nights will see him post upwards of 15 points on efficient shooting while on others he may all but disappear from the box score.
A consistently superb Henson would obviously be ideal, but simply avoiding large fluctuations could go a long way towards providing winning opportunities for both Henson and the team.
Can he provide “3-and-D” in the absence of Khris Middleton?
Coming to Milwaukee as the prize for unloading Michael Carter-Williams, even die-hard NBA fans may not know much about former Chicago Bull Tony Snell, which is understandable. The 20th overall pick in the 2013 draft hasn’t made much of a splash in his three years in the league, putting up just 5.3 points per game last year.
However, at just 24 years old and with a seven-foot wingspan to boot, Snell has room to grow with the current Bucks. Of course, Snell was brought in to replace the injured Khris Middleton, so presumably he’ll be asked to do many of the same things as the Bucks two-guard.
The former Bull does have an ability to stretch the floor a la Middleton, although not quite as proficiently, shooting 36.3 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last year. Defense is also a strength of Snell’s, as our Ti Windisch pointed out, he held opponents to just 40.3 percent shooting.
This covers the main duties of a modern 3-and-D wing, and should Snell fulfill these qualifications, Bucks fans should be more than pleased with their return in the deal.
Beyond these elements, we have no evidence that Snell will be able to replicate Middleton’s performance in other areas, such as facilitating or general volume scoring. However, he will at the least have ample opportunity to showcase his game and potentially earn a contract extension in the offseason to come.
Jason Kidd has indicated that Snell will receive the first opportunity to start at shooting guard, and although it may be unfair to judge him on Middleton’s standard, Bucks fans should have an expectation of quality shooting and defense from their new wing.
Of course, there will be other members of the Bucks that start games at some point or another, but simply judging on influence, the players covered previously will have the most to say about what the Bucks’ season looks like.
The average age of the aforementioned players is only 24.4 years, which underscores how young even the Bucks most influential and tasked players are. Consistency may be an issue for the group as a whole,
Not mentioned is shooting guard Khris Middleton, who likely be missing the entire season due to a hamstring injury. However, this does not mean his duties for the season are complete. Along with rehabbing, Middleton will be tasked with providing leadership for younger players on the ascent, particularly Rashad Vaughn and Malcolm Brogdon.
As one of the club’s premier talents, Khris has influence among the team’s dynamic even when not playing, so an upbeat and positive Middleton will go a long way towards keeping spirits up in what could be a tough season.
Coming soon, I’ll tackle the challenges facing the rest of the Bucks, as the reserves look to improve on a bench that ranked second to last in terms of scoring.
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