Bucks Position Preview: Center

Note: Since this will be the third and final Position Preview for Behind the Buck Pass, take a look back at the previous previews of the guard or forward positions if you’re unaware of the very simple format of this three part series. 

Larry Sanders

Milwaukee’s newly minted “favorite son” will be going into his 4th NBA season with a fresh new contract that includes a more distinct and expansive role with the team. With the recent overhaul of the roster (which surprisingly didn’t impact the front-court) Sanders becomes an unquestionable leader of the new Larry Drew era. Since his emergence during the early portions of the 2012-13 season, the amount of coverage that has been focused on Sanders’ defensive excellence has been astronomical.

WIth Larry Drew looking to implement a new defensive system that features eleven new teammates, Sanders will have to be the general on an army filled with new cadets. As previously mentioned, his ability to protect the paint as a defensive stopper should improve as he’ll have the opportunity to work behind a more accomplished defensive backcourt with Mayo and Brandon Knight.  With that said, the pressure will increase for the 4th year center with escalated contract and brand new role as Milwaukee’s emotional and defensive leader.

While defense continues to be the angel that’s shining on the shoulder of Larry Sanders, that devil known as offense continues to stab at his core. It probably is unfair to totally criticize Sanders’s work on the offensive side because he’s proven himself to be able to work in the pick and roll which has helped lead him to become relatively solid near the rim. The problem with his play offensively would be his extremely limited amount of production when he works his way away from the rim. Per NBA.com’s Stats Database, Sanders shot roughly 27% when he was stationed away from the restricted area which should be a cause for concern amongst Bucks fans. Again, the uncertainty surrounding the new Bucks backcourt pertaining to the team’s main distributor is concerning because of how that might hinder Sanders’ progression as an offensive player.

Zaza Pachulia

In one of the stranger and more unpredictable signings of the offseason, former Buck center Zaza Pachulia will make his return to Milwaukee thanks to an expensive 3 year/$16 million dollar deal. Since his first stint with the Bucks, Pachulia has proven himself to be one of the more solid and reliable backup centers in the league. While his skills on both sides of the ball are pretty much common knowledge in the minds of most fans, I’ve called up Hawks.com scribe Robby Kalland to give a more informative description on Pachulia as he played in Atlanta in the eight seasons since his first stint with the Bucks.

Zaza Pachulia will be as valuable, if not more, to the Bucks this season on the practice court, in the film room, and in the locker room as he will be on the court. i don’t expect his game to change much even after the Achilles’ injury. He was never the fleetest of foot and his game was predicated on physicality rather than athleticism.

Pachulia has a decent mid-range jumper and prefers the left side of the floor. He’s a below average finisher at the rim and does not have very good hands, which leads to him bringing the ball down too low off of passes and rebounds. However, Pachulia’s not being brought in to be an offensive weapon. He gets a lot of looks via off-ball cuts and put-backs (combined 35.3% of his offensive possessions last year).
He is a solid one-on-one defender with the size and strength to match-up against any center in the league in the post. As I mentioned, he’s not the quickest and will struggle at times recovering on pick-and-roll, but he is a very smart player and will make up for some of that lack of speed by positioning himself well.
Where I think his biggest value, at least initially, will be is in helping Larry Drew install his system and having an impact on the young players in the frontcourt. Pachulia will be vocal in making sure players are in the right positions and will be like a coach on the court in practice and games early on as guys learn the new system. He’s a tremendous locker room guy and a great person overall. His gritty playing style and activity in the community will quickly endear him to the Milwaukee faithful as he did in Atlanta. Pachulia isn’t a stat-stuffer or a particularly efficient player, but he plays hard every possession, is a smart player, and will bring toughness and physicality to the Bucks.
While the aforementioned 3 year/$16 million dollar contract is a little bit much for a solid backup option behind Larry Sanders, Pachulia is still going to be a valuable asset for this Bucks team. As Robbie mentioned, Pachulia’s main strength lies into his ability on the defensive end of the court which will be an interesting predicament as he is slated to play alongside sophomore forward John Henson who’s still in the developmental stages.
As he enters his 10th season in the league, Pachulia will be able to insert a good amount of insight into the heads of young bigs like Sanders, Henson and even Giannis Antetokounmpo who is similar to Pachulia as they both entered the NBA at relatively young ages (Zaza Pachulia was 19 when he was drafted by Orlando in 2003).
Miroslav Raduljica
In early July, Milwaukee made a surprising signing when they acquired 25 year old Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica to a three-year deal with a team option for the 2015-16 season. Besides a few Youtube clips and three year old scouting reports from when he initially entered the NBA draft, there was limited information Raduljica when he was acquired by Milwaukee. To help inform both myself and the rest of Milwaukee about this mysterious Serbian seven-footer, I went back to my basketball blogging Rolodex and pulled out BallInEurope editor Emmet Ryan who took some time out of his busy Euroleague covering schedule to help this American out.
For the Bucks it’s strange to have a Euro come over after hanging on quite so long back home. Think of it this way, the 2013/14 season will be his 10th season in pro ball despite only just turning 25. For all of his physical gifts, Raduljica carries the statistical pattern of an import who is liable to disappoint.
The difference between his performance against Euroleague and second tier competition is vast. Raduljica’s career has seen him dominate lesser opposition but unable to bully players in the same way when he steps. Now he’s jumping to the NBA where his physical advantage will be even more diminished. So far so worrying but there is hope.
The one thing we have seen from Raduljica’s extended development is  maturity to his game. Miroslav isn’t forcing it the way he felt he needed to a few years back and that’s making him a smarter and more efficient baller. I’m certainly sceptical of his capacity to earn significant minutes in the NBA but going over later has certainly given him a better chance.
The same uncertainty that Emmett described in the following paragraphs is pretty similar to the raw emotions that Bucks fans had when the move was first announced in July. In the limited amount of time that he’s actually played during the preseason, Raduljica looks like your typical 7’0 backup center who can work inside offensively and can hold his hold on the defensive side. His playing time may be limited as he’ll have to compete with the likes of the aforementioned Zaza Pachulia and Ekpe Udoh for playing time behind Larry Sanders who should project to average around 30-35 minutes per game.
Ekpe Udoh
The former top 10 pick during the 2010 NBA Draft, Ekpe Udoh will be entering the upcoming season in a strange predicament. He’ll have to scratch and claw his way into the Bucks rotation after the recent additions of Raduljica and Zaza Pachulia. At this point into his career, Udoh’s main “gift” to the game would just be his ability to defend the paint on the defensive end. When Udoh was one of the five players who were stationed on the court, the opposition’s field goal percentage was nearly 10% worse than when he was on the bench. With that said, the continued progression of Sanders and Henson along with the signing of Pachulia kind of makes Udoh obsolete because the overall abilities of those three players far out-weigh Ekpe’s defensive ability.
Besides his relatively solid defense, Udoh is basically replacement level to below average in all facets of the game. As former BtBP writer Preston Schmitt noted several times throughout last season, Udoh has been an awful rebounder throughout his NBA career which is shocking when he averaged close to 10 rebounds per game during his senior year at Baylor. Add that with his pedestrian level offensive ability and you have a player who has a single niche that’s not really a necessity for Milwaukee. Would that niche still help Milwaukee? Sure, but it would be a struggle for Udoh to get his share of playing time on an otherwise extremely deep position.
Position Overview
For the first time since the Fear the Deer days, Milwaukee will open up the season with a a healthy and reliable center who will continue to be a force on the defensive end. Despite his offensive flaws, Sanders is still one of the best (if not the best) defensive big in this league which will might even improve with more reliable defensive options in the Bucks backcourt. Minus Sanders, this position is still pretty solid after the additions of Pachulia and to a lesser case Miroslav Raduljica who will be trying to prove himself through the 2013-14 season. With Raduljica and Pachulia in place, a ring of uncertainty surrounds Ekpe Udoh’s future inside of Larry Drew’s front-court rotation. That skepticism has increased after a recent arthroscopic kneee surgery which should put him out of service until early to mid December.

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