Russo: A Closer Look At Van Exel's Return To Wisconsin

(Image credit: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) 

This piece was written by Behind the Buck Pass contributor Henry Russo. Henry is a student at Marquette University and can be found on twitter @HankRusso.

Nick Van Exel is back home.

He’s been away from the Wisconsin basketball scene since his days as a prep star at St. Joseph’s High School in Kenosha. The road back hasn’t always been smooth for Van Exel, but earlier this summer he was hired as an assistant coach. Bucks fans should be excited.

Throughout his college and NBA careers, Van Exel’s creative playing style, along with countless clutch, late-game shots, made him an exciting player to watch. His college career began at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas. However, he made his name at the University of Cincinnati. In his senior season at Cincinnati, Van Exel was a finalist for the Wooden Award after leading the Bearcats in scoring and assists. After his senior season he was selected by the Lakers with the 37th pick in the 1993 draft. Draft day was just the beginning of Van Exel’s long NBA career.

Van Exel spent his first five NBA seasons with the Lakers and even earned his one and only All-Star appearance in his final year there. The Lakers then sent him to the Denver Nuggets after he developed rifts with several people within the organization, including Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Van Exel spent 1998-2002 in Denver where he averaged 17.9 points per game and 8.3 assists; however, Van Exel’s individual numbers failed to translate into team success – the Nuggets went a combined 116-180- in his four seasons.

In February 2002 Van Exel got out of Denver via trade to the Dallas Mavericks. In one-and-a-half seasons with Dallas, Van Exel came off the bench to provide scoring power to an already lethal offense. The Mavs already featured future MVPs Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, along with All-Star shooting guard Michael Finley.

Van Exel excelled with the Mavericks, especially in the 2003 playoffs when he averaged 19.5 points per game. Despite Van Exel’s success, the Mavericks lost to the future champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. After the season, the Mavericks moved on without Van Exel, and he spent the next two unremarkable seasons with the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers. Van Exel concluded his career in 2006 with the San Antonio Spurs, who entered the playoffs the top seed in the west. However, the Spurs fell in seven games to the Mavericks in the Western Conference semis. Shortly after the series, Van Exel announced his retirement.

Van Exel made his return to the game in 2009, this time as an assistant coach in the college ranks for Texas Southern. After just one season, he transitioned back to the NBA level when he became the player development coordinator for the Atlanta Hawks. He spent 2010-2012 in this position before following Larry Drew to Milwaukee.

Van Exel brings a wealth of experience to the Milwaukee bench. Now 41, he’s seen it all. Throughout his long playing career, he played on great teams with future hall of famers, while also suffering trhough painful rebuilding seasons. Between his playing days and coaching/player development career, Van Exel has developed the tools to help Milaukee’s guards improve and even transform their games.

Van Exel’s talent and creative playing style has never been in doubt. Just one look at his free throw routine makes obvious his unconventional playing style. The Bucks’ guards have an opportunity to learn from a veteran who’s been around the block.

So what kind of positive impact could Van Exel have on these players? Here are some possibilities:

Brandon Knight: The third year point guard out of Kentucky played his first two seasons in Detroit until a trade brought him to Milwaukee. Neither season was a complete disaster, but Knight showed little improvement in his sophomore year. Knight’s game is actually fairly similar to Van Exel’s in that he is a better scorer than assist man

In high school Knight averaged just over 30 points per game, so while the competition in the NBA is obviously much more intense than varsity or AAU basketball in Florida, it does not change Knight’s natural playing mentality. The 21-year-old Knight is a talented young player and could benefit from Van Exel’s influence. 

Luke Ridnour: Ridnour returned to Milwaukee via trade after signing with Minnesota following Milwaukee’s “Fear the Dear” playoff “run” in 2010. He will be the first point guard off the bench – at least until one of the younger players proves more capable. Van Exel will hopefully help Ridnour be a positive veteran influence on a below-average team. Ridnour does not play a fast game like Van Exel but if he can produce more plays like this Bucks fans should be happy.

Ish Smith: Already well–traveled in his young career, smith is quick and athletic – just like Van Exel. However his shooting numbers and assists are low. If he wants to stick around in Milwaukee for a significant amount of time, he’ll need to show improvement in nearly all aspects of his game. Van Exel could spur Smith’s improvement by showing him how to use that quickness more efficiently. 

Nate Wolters: Wolters dominated at mid-major South Dakota State, putting up big numbers while leading the Jackrabbits to the NCAA tournament in his junior and senior seasons. While he played both guard spots in college, Wolters projects as a point guard in the NBA, giving him a size advantage with his 6’5” frame. He does not have nearly the same quickness as Van Exel but can be lethal from behind the arc – just ask IPFW. Though their respective playing styles are quite different, Van Exel will at least relate to Wolters’ situation as a second-round pick. This could help Wolters figure out how he can transition his game from mid-major college basketball to the NBA. The good news for Wolters is that he has already been signed to a contract, which is not always the case for many second-rounders.

OJ Mayo: Another new face for the Bucks, Mayo will be their starting shooting guard. While Mayo’s scoring skills have never been in doubt, Van Exel could help him become a more versatile play maker. If O.J. can get his teammates more involved, his game will reach another level. This next level could help Mayo, 25, meet the lofty expectations placed on him as a third overall pick. As the primary offensive weapon, he will get plenty of opportunities in cruch time. If Van Exels clutch play making rubs off on O.J. in any way, he could find himself as a potential All-Star. Perhaps even more importantly, Van Exel can demonstrate to Mayo what an NBA All-Star mentality is like. If Mayo takes advantage of these opportunities and does become an All-Star, his career arc would look much like that of Chauncey Billups, who was a high draft pick but failed to reach his potential until he made multiple stops around the league. 

Gary Neal: Fresh off an impressive NBA Finals showing with the Spurs, Neal signed with the Bucks this offseason. In that Finals series, Neal was a potent threat from beyond the arc – especially in Game 3. However, he achieved his success with the support of three future Hall of Famers. Nobody is confusing Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili (not yet, anyway). Bucks fans should feel hopeful that Van Exel can help Neal maintain some of that Finals form while providing a scoring spark off the bench –much like Van Exel did in Dallas.

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