by Austin Kelly
Some time passes and a lonely Bleu Mont Dairy wrapper floats by aloof. Is there anything in Wisconsin other than cheese I wonder? More importantly, does Jabari Parker like cheese? Would the ever-stingy O.J. Mayo share his provolone sub with Ersan after practice? These questions are profound but only cheese related. I think something else, a bigger interest, is “brewing” in me (Milwaukee also has good beer…I think). There is something about the Bucks that is tantalizing when one dives into the pool of possibility. Often, I am a blind optimist to my own demise, but sometimes, just sometimes, my feral instincts direct me to the brink of something special. I strongly believe there is more to the Bucks than the eye can see, and I openly declare they will be title contenders in 4-6 years.
As a self-proclaimed fantasy guru, I created a sanctuary at the end of my bench for decrepit Bucks players last season. I collected them like baseball cards. I examined their stats as closely as the ants I used to burn under magnifying glasses with my deranged childhood friend Justin. He convinced me that killing insects was normal (we also killed dragonflies). Someone who does stuff like that is a closet nerd, and nerds like stats. My obsession with stats led me to a late season man crush and undying fascination with one young Buck. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, and I take pride in the fact that I can’t come close to pronouncing his last name. I am certain that if you don’t know this kid, you’ll know him soon enough. And if you’re a degenerate like myself, just call him “The Greek Freak”.
The kid is exactly that: a freak! He was a first-round selection, going 15th overall to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013. He was drafted as a gangly, 6’9” 18-year-old with an arsenal of skills. He is more of a Jack-of-all-trades than a specialist, but he also hasn’t found his niche quite yet, leading an expert like myself to believe there is inexorable room to grow. The scary part is that in just one season he has grown 2 inches, and many believe he isn’t done yet! To put this in perspective, in 365 days, he has additionally grown a height equal to a stack of Giannis Antetokounmpo business cards, of which he can hand out to his adversaries before he gives them the “business” and soars to the rim.
He now stands as a 6’11” guard-forward hybrid with the wingspan of a bald eagle and a hunger for the game on par with a Canis Lupus wolf. Giannis also possesses a nimbleness providing him great speed and agility in the open court and a soft touch around the basket. This kid is such a raw talent that Jason Kidd was salivating as he took the reigns as head coach - eagerly awaiting to season and cook some fresh grade-A meat.
Coach Kidd, although new to Bucks organization, has been haste in testing the range of Giannis’ abilities. During the Summer League, he let the fledgling hooper command his office running the point. He is a capable 6’9” point guard with an array of skills… Remind you of anyone? A Dodger owner perhaps, with an extremely small percentage of ownership that’s highly insignificant other than for the sake of being a mascot? Hold up, this comparison doesn’t even work anymore because Giannis is 6’11” now… Holy shit! Either way, he is building a similar resume to Magic and he is likely to pass admissions at Basketball Corp.
Yes, I know. Is it likely the game sees another Magic? Hardly. Also keep in mind, I am not comparing the intricacies of their games as much as their size and range of skills... There is simply no equal to the Mayor of Showtime. Regardless, one can’t help but see a striking resemblance, and one can’t help but marvel at the tools at Giannis’ disposal. There aren’t too many people in the world who can grab the rim without jumping AND call out plays at the top of the arc… Just sayin’. As dynamic of a player as Giannis is shaping up to be, what most excites me is that he is in a situation where his surrounding cast is replete with untapped talent.
I want to investigate the most likely starting lineup. As it stands, I assume it will be as follows:
I do actually enjoy this lineup, but I foresee a few alterations that will have two players playing starters minutes and excelling off the bench:
One player I’ve had my eye on in particular is O.J. Mayo. Having made his third stop in Milwaukee having only been in the league for six years, it is evident he has not found his home. He entered the league with a prodigious basketball resume infusing the media and spectators with high hopes alike.
Let’s be honest, he didn’t live up to those expectations, but he’s at least strung together flashes of brilliance. As the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, there was a lot of pressure to produce and he finished as the runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting to a man who would later become the youngest MVP ever. In his rookie campaign, Mayo averaged 18.5 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.2 rebounds. Those are great numbers for a player in his prime, let alone a rookie. Unfortunately, every year he has seen a decline in points, minutes, and percentages. A player losing his way is not an untold story, and many talented players find themselves reborn when put in circumstances best fit for them to thrive in. I believe if he commits to Kidd’s system, matures as a player, and mentors the younger players beneath him, he will prosper greatly.
O.J. Mayo is a player that can create his own shot; he has an uncanny ability to shoot off-balance and/or with a hand in his face. This is a skill that most elite scorers possess, and although he hasn’t been anything close to elite, he has the potential to amply contribute offensively on a nightly basis. These boastful assertions come with caveats as per usual. My endorsement of O.J. Mayo comes with criticisms of certain liabilities he must overcome in order to be the Bucks’ deadly force off the bench.
One, he has to stop playing with the ball. One of my biggest pet peeves is someone who dribbles aimlessly. I’ve always stood at the cardinal rule: “Know what you’re going to do with the ball before you get it.” He often runs into trouble when he holds onto the ball, trying to make a move on his man in isolation, which ends up freezing his teammates. This is not a fault to his skill as much as it’s a fault to the cultural practices embedded in his game. If Kidd can make him understand that his game will flow easier with patience and rhythm, this shouldn’t be an issue. Also less iso’s mean stronger half-court sets. He will be a better scorer when he gets his teammates involved subsequently creating better shot selection.
Which takes me to my second problem with Mayo: his shot selection. I respect his stroke and his confidence, but there is a time and a place for every shot. There is no place for a 30-foot heat check 4 minutes into the first quarter. If O.J. Mayo is the prince of the asinine pull-up, J.R Smith is the King, sitting in a golden tapered throne while resting his feet on two of the Knicks’ towel boys. I won’t say I don’t enjoy it because it’s highly amusing but if you’re trying to win championships, I’d prefer you chuck the ball up after crossing half court. Anyways, those are just two of the complaints I challenge O.J. Mayo to consider, and I don’t find them hard to change, especially with a team on the rise.
His partner in crime within the second unit will be Khris Middleton. When he established himself as a starter in the second half of last year’s campaign, he had some impressive performances catapulting him into the spotlight. He showed that he could be a proficient scorer and is easily one of the best shooters on the Bucks roster. Purely from a statistical standpoint, he outplayed Giannis throughout the entire season. While some of this assertion can be contributed to the disastrous management style of Larry Drew and his devotion to musical chairs, one can’t forget that Khris Middleton was subject to the same anxieties. He is only 23 and, like Giannis, he is a stretch wing. He holds himself as a true professional working for every minute he earns, and if he can build off last year’s accomplishments, Mayo and Middleton will make for a dangerous second unit backcourt.
With every young team, defense is a focal point because it can be attained through sheer effort along with some smart coaching schemes. Skills may vary, attention to detail may waver, but hustle is from the heart and it elevates all other aspects of the game. This brings me to my next Buck, the Green Monster, who lives in the paint swallowing the average point guards’ dismal floater. I am very fond of Larry Sanders despite his early career troubles. He can be a beast in the paint because he’s an elite defender when he wants to be. After back to back disappointing seasons riddled with Ganja, a decrease in minutes, as well as thumb and back injuries, Mr. Sanders would’ve been more helpful at a local KFC. He will bounce back though because he is a savage when guarding the basket like a mother bird guarding her hatchlings. He has excellent timing sliding over for weak side help, and he maintains a looming presence even when he’s on the opposite side of the court. Also he has a chip on his shoulder, or I should say a boulder… that’s how fat his contract was.
No man wants to sign a 4-year $44 million extension and not earn a penny of it. He can shoulder the defensive load, and he always has his nose on the ball attaining a career average of 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes despite low usage during his rookie season and dud injuries plaguing his sophomore campaign. He is not very skilled offensively, but he’s extremely strong and anything within two feet of the basket is getting thrown down. It is important to note that they don’t need him to score; rather, they need him to finish, rebound, and block, which are all areas that he can excel in when healthy. I’ll go on record and give him the title of a “Poor Man’s Serge Ibaka” on a statistical basis. A better comparison is probably Samuel Dalembert in his prime, but I have higher hopes for his career and the best from Larry has already been better than anything Dalembert could scrape together. All in all, the big man will give them stable interior defense that will provide an edge if their offensive talents coalesce properly.
I don’t think this is a defensive team in the slightest, but you need defensive minded players that can at least set a tone that will lift everyone’s play. I raise my hand, slide in my chips, and go all in for the Bucks offensively. The leader of this crusade will have to be their new knight, Jabari Parker. The Golden child has been given comparisons to Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony. I personally see both, and what he lacks in Melo’s quickness he makes up for in Paul Pierce’s deceptiveness and IQ. The kid can flat out ball and I expect an early impact.
Another Simeon High legend has awoken, the world waits with bated breath and the city of Milwaukee holds hands and rejoices in a jolly sing-a-long. Savior is quite a strong word, but we’d be lying if he isn’t just that. The number two overall pick has an NBA body already and the mindset of a seasoned vet. Without Jabari, the Milwaukee Bucks are just another team, however talented, filled with disappointing and disparate elements. Jabari is the adhesive that will be the catalyst for a future riddled with success.
He plays with an eagerness to get better every day. He plays with an aplomb that evinces the pedigree of a winner. His future is fulgent, as long as he stays the course. He is not one I believe can be distracted or discouraged, and he possesses a fealty to the “team” that one can’t teach. His character is a springboard for his greatness, but the refinement of his skills will be what enables him to reach those heights.
Jabari Parker is the definition of an all-around player. He is deceptively quick and I believe that’s what warrants his Paul Pierce comparisons. He’s slippery like an amoeba shifting his body, his weight, and his feet to slide by a defender in a flash. His first step is explosive and his stature pins smaller defenders to the ground. He has a knack for instinctively placing himself in effective positions to make a play on the ball and finds a way to be involved in most possessions. He does this consistently and with purpose, securing rebounds for second chance baskets. I consider this a skill because offensive rebounds can be demoralizing, especially after the shot clock has been juiced. Jabari’s jumper isn’t deadly but I would bet on him becoming a great shooter. He didn’t shoot particularly well at Duke but a confident jumper is a good jumper in the hands of a supreme talent. With his dedication and work ethic, I have no doubt he will work the kinks out and that can only come with time.
As for his ball skills, considering his height and physical ability, he handles the rock quite well. He can be a little clumsy in the open court at times, but I’ve seen better plays in his hands on the fast break than in the hands of most point guards in the country last year. He doesn’t force many shots and waits for the game to come to him. He’s extremely aggressive and he will put his head down in the paint unafraid of bangin’ with the big boys. He likes contact and often uses it to alter his own momentum and square his shot attempts. As I mentioned earlier, he always has his nose at the rim and doesn’t let up once he’s in the vicinity of the ball. He’s physical and rebounds like a power forward while he’s swift and skilled like a guard. He can play almost any position and makes for a difficult match up. I have to say I really like this kid and believe he will be the real deal.
Although Jabari is the captain of the S.S.R. Bucks, Brandon Knight owns the ship. It is evident that the NBA is a point guard’s league now and most certainly has been for the last decade. The point guard commands the floor, running the offense, setting the tone defensively, and containing an unfaltering desire to win. Although Brandon Knight isn’t my ideal candidate at point, he has certain skills that complement their offense nicely. He isn’t a pure point guard and often catches flak for his ball handling ability, shoot first mentality, and lack of vision. These claims are substantial, but despite the shortcomings, I envision a guard with plenty to offer. First, he is a bolt; sometimes you’re lucky if you catch a trace of him. His first step is explosive and his size at point gives him great dexterity in the paint. He has excellent instincts and is a pure scorer. His floater is quite solid and he isn’t afraid to put his head down and penetrate. With the weapons at his disposal, I can see him prospering over the next five years barring his ankles don’t break again on All-Star weekend.
The final piece to the puzzle, who must not disappoint, is Ersan Ilyasova. Over the past three years, he has been seen as the Bucks’ best pure scorer. However, every year the fans trust in him diminishes. Often criticized about his inability to play at a high level for a full season, he has yet to prove this claim false. His seasons are highly comparable to an old log cabin shower that takes too long to heat up until it’s overly hot and the desire to shower is lost. I, FOR ONE, DO NOT CONDONE NOT SHOWERING. As bad of analogy as that is, by the time Ersan catches fire, it’s baseball season. He has to find a way to be a threat each and every game. All in all, he is a very intriguing player standing at 6’11” with a lot of range. He is an above average rebounder at his best and capable of the occasional 15 rebound game. Considering how well he stretches the floor, it’s unique how physically capable he is.
The Big Question is what do the Bucks’ individual talents equate to? Will these players have chemistry? Because talent is never enough as shown dramatically by the biggest bust in NBA history, the abysmal 2012 Los Angeles Lakers. (And this team was made of vets, superstars, MVPs, and champions alike…yikes) If the GM can keep the majority of this cast together apart from pecuniary limitations, I have no doubt the Bucks will flourish. Don’t be surprised if I buy season tickets in 2018 and fly in for the weekends. I won’t be labeled a bandwagoner and neither will you if you get on board. The Milwaukee Bucks have the trappings of a team that will surprise people and incessantly push closer to a title contender. After this article, all I ask is that you let me hang the banner. #BIGBUCKBALLIN