Apr 6, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Detroit Pistons point guard Brandon Knight (7) drives to the basket in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 107-101. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Bucks Position Preview: Guards


Dateline: April 28th, 2013. The Milwaukee Bucks closed out a troubling 2012-13 campaign by losing  88-77 to the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat. That defeat marked the end to a controversial but yet entertaining era that centered around the backcourt duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. All of the words in the world have been used to describe this offensively minded group but their departure will reign in the start of a brand new era which might be even more strange than the aforementioned “Swag Bros” era.

As Ellis took the trek down south to Dallas while Jennings moved to Detroit to join one of Milwaukee’s bitter division rivals, the Bucks are going to look to replace that duo with a brand new core of players. When the Bucks brass were given the challenge and opportunity to find a new group of men to take the reigns of the team’s backcourt, a cloud of uncertainty arose as fans were interested in what Hammond and company would handle this unique situation.

Now as we near the start of a brand new season, that unique situation is now part of the past as the Bucks have a brand new core of backcourt players who are hoping to take the Bucks to new heights. Every single member of the Bucks backcourt played outside of Milwaukee during the 2012-13 season so I thought it would be smart to introduce the new backcourt core before they step on the court for the 2013-14 season. All of these newcomers are going to have the opportunity to bring something new and enticing to the table. What will these individuals bring to the Bucks to make them improve as a team?  Or will they just slowly sink deep into the abyss? Let’s find out.

Brandon Knight

The grand prize in the Detroit/Milwaukee deal that sent Brandon Jennings to Milwaukee, Brandon Knight is going into the upcoming season with hopes of re-energizing his career after a stagnant 2012-13 campaign. Hiding in the rubble of an abysmal Detroit Pistons, Brandon Knight looked more like a WWE jobber than anything else because of his tendency to be used to put other players into the highlight reels. After being used as a combo guard during the 2nd half of the season after the Pistons acquired veteran guard Jose Calderon, Knight is hoping to transition to the point which could be a strange transition after spending a majority of his offensive possessions (30%) by either spotting up from the perimeter or working around off-ball screens.

As apparent from the shot chart below, Brandon Knight is a solid  to average perimeter shooter which is probably a breath of fresh air for Bucks fans after dealing with the reign of terror that Monta Ellis brought to the three-point line last season. As you’ll be able to see as we continue this positional breakdown, the Bucks have a core of backcourt players who are pretty efficient from behind the three point line. That could pay dividends for the Bucks as the 22 year old Brandon Knight will hope to improve as an overall distributor (averaged only 4.6 assists per 36 minutes). Even though it won’t be the best way to control an offense, it’s more than a possibility that Knight will be glued to the perimeter for a majority of his offensive possessions because of his less than stellar play from around the rim. Despite that, Knight is an extremely agile 6’3 guard who can penetrate to the paint and kick it out to a cutting teammate which could work great as he works with the likes of John Henson and Larry Sanders.

Brandon Knight Shot Chart

His transition to Milwaukee is still a huge mystery but there’s a chance that coach Drew will slowly try to work him into the Bucks system. Larry Drew can afford to do that after the return of former Bucks guard Luke Ridnour who will be used as the coach’s safety net.

Luke Ridnour

Speaking of the devil, veteran guard Luke Ridnour will make his return to Milwaukee after an extended stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves. While he has spent the majority of his career controlling the offense as a point guard, Ridnour has spent the previous two seasons working as a 6’2 shooting guard after the arrival of Ricky Rubio before the 2011-12 campaign. As previously mentioned, Ridnour was brought back to Milwaukee to be that “safety net” for an otherwise convoluted back court.

In a similar way to his role with the “Fear The Deer” Bucks team, Ridnour will be used to help Brandon Knight in a similar way he worked with Brandon Jennings. Knight may be entering his 3rd season in the NBA but he’s still an extremely young 21 year old guard who struggled in a less than desirable role with Detroit. While coach Larry Drew and the rest of the Bucks organization are most likely looking at Brandon Knight to take the reigns as the team’s starting point guard for years to come, Ridnour might be asked to enter a platoon type role with Knight.

When Ridnour is on the court, he continues to look like one of the more efficient and solid all-around role players in the league. Similar to former disgruntled Bucks guard Beno Udrih, Luke Ridnour makes his bones from that little area from the top of the key to just inside the free throw line. While that area usually is one of the worst spots in the court (sorry Doug Collins), Ridnour is the real-life equivalent of Jesus Shuttlesworth with the way he moves and shakes his way inside the perimeter to lace up a smooth mid-range jumper.

Nate Wolters

During that weird purgatory type period between the end of the NBA Finals  and the NBA Draft, I wrote an extensive draft profile on the Jackrabbits guard. In that piece, I expressed a great amount of optimism about the 6’3 guard which has since died off after his less than stellar performance during July in Vegas Summer League. While it’s a little idiotic to judge a rookie’s future based on a simple performance in Summer League, that display further showcases the concerns that Bucks fans have about the young guard as we enter the season. While Wolters was able to be an extremely successful guard for South Dakota State, there are doubts surrounding his transition to the NBA because of concerns about his lack of athleticism and ability to drive to the rim.

With that said, as a probable 3rd string point guard, it’s extremely possible that Wolters will spend more time with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants than on the floor at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Point Guard Overview

The process of comparing these three players to the now departed Brandon Jennings is impossible because Jennings had more of that dynamic skill-set than this trio. Knight or Ridnour could do a nice job trying to take control of that position or even be more efficient than the current Pistons guard but they don’t have that game-changing type impact on a night-to-night basis. Perhaps Knight or to a lesser case Luke Ridnour are just placeholders for a potential lottery pick (i.e Dante Exum or Marcus Smart) but they can still do a solid job until John Hammond finds a standout replacement.

Again, this duo are going to bring certain different aspects to the plate that may be considered positive or negative but I still don’t see them reaching that Jennings-type level despite his constant mishaps with the team.

OJ Mayo

Moving on to shooting guard, we start out by taking a look at O.J Mayo. Now, earlier this offseason I spent an insane amount of time working on this piece so I thought it would be a better idea to go out into the basketball blogosphere to try to get another writer to give their unique opinion on the O.J Mayo move. That process was extremely easy as resident bulldog lover and Two Man Game writer Kirk Henderson accepted my request and has wrote the following on the former Maverick guard.

O.J. Mayo kept the Mavericks alive early in the 2012-2013 season, with Dirk recovering from knee surgery. His numbers through mid-December were fantastic and he was hitting threes at a blistering pace (over 50% in 2012). As the year wore on, though, Mayo started fading. It was nearly imperceptible at first; after all, with Dirk returning it would make sense for Mayo’s stats to change. With Darren Collison and the point guard situation collapsing in Dallas, Mayo attempted to shoulder some of the ball handling duties. He was nothing short of horrendous, and it bled over into the rest of his game. By year’s end he was the Mavericks third and sometimes fourth option. He’s a fantastic catch and shoot player on offense, but beyond that, he is limited.

I expect Mayo will start the season with the Bucks hot; if one digs into his numbers, season by season, historically he always starts much better than he finishes. Given that he joined the Bucks under the expectation that he would be one of the first scoring options, I suspect he’ll put up reasonably good numbers, even considering his contract. However, if he’s to help the Bucks get to the playoffs he has to improve his man defense. Having Larry Sanders behind him will help, but Mayo is a prolific ball watcher. He’ll also need to watch his turnovers; though he committed 2.6 per game last year, they seemed to come in bunches and were often of the live ball variety. Mayo is a frustrating player, because he knows the game of basketball and is brutally honest about his short comings. But he never seems to make the leap to fix these areas where he’s had glaring problems. I wish I could be more positive about Mayo, but after 5 NBA seasons, he is who he is.
Bouncing off of Kirk’s comments, my main concern for Mayo as he continues to progress through the season will be his ability and/or inability to be consistent. General Manager John Hammond signed Mayo to be that fixture in the starting rotation for the next three seasons and it could extremely troubling if he does struggle for an extended period of time like he did with Dallas. As they currently stand, the Bucks do have a few other options who could step in for a suffering OJ Mayo but the team will still be depending on OJ Mayo to lead their offense which could be either terrific or down right haunting.
Gary Neal
Similar to Kirk Henderson and O.J Mayo, I’ve called on 48 Minutes of Hell editor Matthew Tynan to give a unique opinion on Gary Neal after my insane and detailed video breakdown piece from earlier this offseason.
Gary Neal was an interesting fit in San Antonio, where things are typically very structured. And really, the word ‘structure’ and Gary Neal rarely appear in the same sentence given his gunner mentality. (He’s not at the top of the NBA’s gunner list, but he’ll let it fly from anywhere.)
But he did have a unique place in a Spurs uniform. Gregg Popovich is well-known for his role assignments: Every player has a specific job and place on the team, and unless your name is Manu, Tony or Tim you’re very seldom allowed to freelance. Still, Neal had more freedom than most role players, and like Ginobili, he was almost exclusively used as a spark plug off the bench. He was perhaps the only Spur outside of the Big 3 who could initiate his own offense, and prior to last season’s shooting slump was decently effective doing so. Many Spurs fans griped when the shots weren’t falling for Neal (which was quite often), but it’s what comes with the package. The light is always green in his mind. Besides, while Pop gave him freedom, he didn’t hesitate to break out the leash if needed.
He’ll shoot a lot from the perimeter and mid-range a lot, though he’s actually got a pretty good mid-range game. He shot 42.5 percent on 2-point field-goal attempts from outside the paint, and that’s in a down year. He’s developed a very crafty scoring skill set (floaters, runners, etc…) that makes him pretty good from that area. If the Bucks get the 2010-12 Neal offensively, they’ll be ecstatic. His 2012-13 season saw a pretty large drop-off in shooting numbers, but he did have his best defensive season (which really isn’t saying much). Also, behind the scenes, Neal was wrapped from foot to knee in ice packs almost every night. The dude was hurting, but it wasn’t widely publicized.
He showed in the Finals what he can do during those offensive bursts, and on a team in Milwaukee that seems to be loading up on shooters, he’s going to have some games (off the bench, I’d guess) that will be pretty fun to watch.
Like Tynan mentioned in his final paragraph, Neal’s role is probably going to be as a offensive spark plug who will come off the bench, work the perimeter and probably irritate some Bucks fans during the long journey of the regular season. That point standing, Neal signed a two year/$6 million dollar deal so he will be an affordable offensive spark with Milwaukee for the next two seasons.
Carlos Delfino
We started this piece by taling about former Bucks point guard Luke Ridnour and we’ll now wrap things up with Carlos Delfino who previously played in Milwaukee between 2009-2012. The addition of Delfino helped solidify the wing position (SG/SF) for Milwaukee which basically only consisted of Giannis Antetokounmpo, O.J Mayo and possibly Nate Wolters. His ability to both play and defend both wing positions will be extremely helpful for a Bucks team that really doesn’t have a bunch of depth in that area.
When Delfino is working on the court, he’s a solid and effective “3 and D’” type of player. As apparent from his days in Milwaukee, Delfino is an extremely pesky defender who positions himself in the face of the opposition while using his quick hands to try to force a turnover. While that pesky trait can get him into trouble in terms of being beat by an opponent who’s working in the triple threat, his feet are still quick enough to where he can still keep track and stay in front of his opponent.
As aforementioned, Delfino has made his bones on the offensive side with his ability to be a productive perimeter shooter. In a four year stretch that spans his three previous season in Milwaukee and last year in Houston, Delfino has shot approximately 37% from beyond the arc. With that said, he has enough athleticism to break away in the open court and finish around the rim (as apparent from the shot chart below). While Delfino will probably play a majority of the season at small forward, he has a history at shooting guard and will most likely be asked to fill that position in a reserve role.
Shooting Guard Overview
Predicting how this shooting guard core will be ran or mesh together because nobody really knows what to expect on a game-to-game or month-to-month basis from O.J Mayo. Like Kirk Henderson said, Mayo can be a game-changing guard when he’s completely focused and on his game while he can be a big problem when he’s struggling for an extended period of time. A problematic O.J Mayo could really kill the Bucks backcourt because of the real lack of depth behind him. Despite his NBA Finals, Gary Neal is best served to be an offensive spark-plug who should only play around 10-15 minutes a game. On the other hand, Delfino has proven himself to be able to handle the shooting guard position but will probably be helping out Caron Butler and to a lesser extent Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But that’s risk that Milwaukee took on when they signed Mayo to a three year contract. There can be a span of time where he looks like one of the better guards in the Eastern Conference while he’ll eventually turn into a big pile of horse manure before you know it.
Closing Thoughts
Going into a new era with this Bucks backcourt, there will definitely be a good amount of growing pains in the early portions of the season. A big reasons for those early season struggles would be the simple fact that Milwaukee really doesn’t have a starting caliber player who could be that main distributer. Perhaps Larry Drew and the rest of the Bucks coaching staff can develop an offense in which they work the ball around the perimeter and use a variety of different off-ball screens.
Besides an unforeseeable miracle, Milwaukee probably won’t be sniffing a higher seed in the playoffs which means that they can experiment with a variety of different backcourt rotations. Even though Milwaukee will probably be depending on Knight and Mayo to help lead their starting lineup this season, it could be a better idea to pair Ridnour with Mayo, Knight with Delfino or vice versa.
That unsolved mystery is about to be cracked by Larry Drew and his coaching staff and I personally can’t wait to see the results because of the fact that a small part of me likes it when you mix a possible train-wreck with my entertainment and pleasure.