Bucks Position Preview: Forwards


Continuing with the three-part position preview series, I’m going to take on the gruelling task of trying to give an overview on Milwaukee’s forward situation as we enter the 2013-14 season. The format for this piece will be extremely similar to the inaugural one that was dedicated to Milwaukee’s guard position which was longer and more in depth than even I would have imagined. So with out further ado, let’s get to the piece that will feature a wide range of different players from youngsters like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton to Ersan Ilyasova and Caron Butler who will some of the main veteran presence on an otherwise young cast of characters.

Caron Butler

Speaking of the devil, the latest addition to Milwaukee’s rotation is definitely no stranger to either the NBA or the start of Wisconsin. The 12 year NBA veteran was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin before moving on to the basketball sanctuary known as the University of Connecticut. Thirteen years after stepping on to the grounds of Storrs, Connecticut, Butler will be making his Wisconsin return as he will lace up his sneakers at the BMO Harris Bradley Center as Milwaukee’s top projected small forward going into the upcoming season. Typical for an athlete who’s been playing at the pro level for over a decade, Butler is clearly closing in on the twilight of his career but that doesn’t exactly mean the end to his relevance in this league.

Entering the upcoming season as the team’s projected starting forward (Carlos Delfino is still battling a foot injury), Butler is hoping to re-energise his career after a rough two-year stretch with the Clippers. Perhaps the familiar scenery of Milwaukee will h\do him wonders but he’ll easily fit right in because of his solid ability to drain the corner jumper. Apparent from the shot chart below, Butler was excellent from the right side of the perimeter which will be extremely useful as the team’s backcourt tries to learn Larry Drew’s up-tempo style of offense. As the offense starts to develop and mesh as a unit, Butler’s ability from the corner will be great because he can knock down that corner three while being able to penetrate his way to the rim.

As Butler continues to age as a player, his overall ability to defend quick and athletic wings will continue to deteriorate. With that said, he’s still an extremely intelligent and cerebral player who has learned that unique trait of using your own front-court players to his defensive advantage.

In the basketball masterpiece “The Art of the Beautiful Game”, advanced stats hero Shane Battier defined his defensive strategy as being more team oriented than a basic one-on-one matchup. His reasoning behind that statement was centered around his relationship with 7’6 behemoth Yao Ming and 6’6 forward Chuck Hayes who played a lot of his minutes in the front-court despite his miniscule height. “I’m lucky to have a guy like Yao,” he told author Chris Ballard. “He’s not the best shot blocker, not the fastest but he’s there. “It wasn’t until I got better help behind and better interior defenders that all of a sudden my reputation as a defender grew. Is it a coincidence? I don’t think so.”

A similar mind-set can be put in place for Butler in the upcoming season as he’ll be working alongside defensive powerhouse and shot-blocking messiah Larry Sanders. As he continues to age, Butler will be unable to go “mano-a-mano” but he’ll be able to use Sanders as a great help-side defender who could work against some of the best wings as they penetrate to the rim.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The young prince of Milwaukee will finally be making his much anticipated Bucks debut in the coming weeks. Reigning in as a 6’9 forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the more mysterious players in recent history which is a surprising predicament with the abundance of basketball information that’s available online. While it’s not likely for him to be immediately inserted into a major role on a team that continues to vie for another playoff position despite the recent roster overhaul, he should get a solid amount of playing time simply because of the investment that the Bucks organization has put into this 18 year old phenom.

Going off of the comments that I made back in May during the anticipation for the NBA Draft that are still relevant five months later. As he stands at 6’9, you would think that it would be ideal for Antetokounmpo to develop around Larry Sanders and John Henson to create a super powered trio of good players with ridiculously long arms. Let’s call them “The Three Armigos”. While two thirds of the trio will be focused from inside the paint, Antetokounmpo’s main priority will be from around the perimeter which was his main area of expertise in Greece. While he probably won’t be taking the ball up the court as frequently as he did in Europe but it will be an intriguing development to see how he can work from the perimeter to either work on his three point shot or to penetrate to the basket like a gazelle in the Serengeti.

Similar to the John Henson, Antetokounmpo is going to have immense defensive potential because of his mobility and lengthy frame. His inexperience could hinder his ability to defend some of the best front-court players in the league but Antetokounmpo still has the potential to be one of the better defenders in the league because of the aforementioned frame and mobility will allow him to defend multiple positions.

Khris Middleton

From the moment that the Pistons and Bucks agreed to the deal that sent the fledgling Brandon Jennings over to Detroit, I was intrigued by 2nd year forward Khris Middleton. To this day, I’m still uncertain about my excitement pertaining to Middleton because of his limited role with the Pistons and the relative obscurity that hung over him during his college career at Mississippi State. In the small amount of time that he was on the court with Detroit, he was a middle-of-the-road player who really didn’t bring that much to the table.

With that said, Middleton is one of those weird cases in which his abilities on-court could possibly outweigh both basic and advanced statistics. While the relative small sample size could make this statement sound ridiculous but Middleton has the potential to be in a similar category to former Bucks defensive standout Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The pure energy and emotion that Middleton brings to the court on a possession-by-possession basis. As apparent from the shot chart below, Middleton is really only successful when he’s shooting from the corner which could lead him to some level of success in the upcoming season.

Defensively is where Middleton might make the biggest impact with Milwaukee because of how he’s able to carry over his high level of energy and focus to the defensive side of the ball. In the limited amount of time that he was actually on court and able to work on the defensive end, Middleton was able to show off a veteran like presence with the way he was able to stay near the opposition after fighting through different variations of pick and rolls of off-ball screens. While those skills could get a little worse as Middleton is moved into a bigger role with Milwaukee which would ultimately lead to more matchups against some of the best offensive players in the league

Small Forward Overview

Milwaukee’s small forward position during the 2013-14 season will be a constant battle between the present and future. Much to the dismay of Bucks fans, Herb Kohl and John Hammond are still heavily focused on the continued pursuit for a playoff spot despite the recent roster overhaul. The additions of Butler and Carlos Delfino (more information on him here) would be the kind of moves a team would make if they’re looking to acquire the necessary veterans that are needed to make some sort of a playoff push.  With that said, Giannis Antetokounmpo will eventually have to get some sort of in-game experience which could hinder the team’s hopes for a run at the playoffs simply because of how raw he actually is.

Larry Drew and the Bucks coaching staff will have to take on the difficult task of trying to figure out how to balance out the veteran presence (Butler and Delfino) while allowing the young prospects (Middleton and Antetokounmpo) to acquire the much needed on-court experience. While it would seem obvious to send either Antetokounmpo or Middleton to the D-League and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants to gain experience, it probably won’t be the best idea simply because of the four separate NBA teams that are also affiliated with Fort Wayne.

Ersan Ilyasova

With the recent roster overhaul, Ersan Ilyasova is going to be into an awkward situation as the longest lasting piece on an otherwise brand new team. As he enters his 6th season with Milwaukee, Ersan will be pegged as the starting power forward and one of the main perimeter targets on a team that will be looking to live from the three point line. That dynamic between the offensively challenged Sanders and the sharp-shooting Ilyasova will continue to be an extremely intriguing development because of Coach Drew’s proposed up-tempo offense.

Despite some battles with inconsistencies at the beginning of the season, (21% from the three-point line in November) Ilyasova was extremely rock-solid from the top of the perimeter compared to the corner which is actually pretty rare. Outside of that terrific perimeter jumper, Ilyasova will continue to be an above-average high-energy player who can work off-ball to find an opening on the court or to penetrate to the paint for an easy basket.

Things for Illyasova get a little bit more controversial as we move to the defensive side of the ball. As former BtBP head honcho K.L Chouinard brought up in a piece from this past summer, Ilyasova struggles mightily when he’s given the task of defending an athletic opponent in man-to-man situations. As a 6’9 forward who usually defends from inside the paint, Ilyasova won’t usually be given that task but he’s still an extremely below average defender who allowed .93 PPP (points per possession) during the 2012-13 campaign. With that said, Ilyasova will be paired up in the front-court with Larry Sanders who should be able to hide a majority of Ersan’s defensive flaws.

John Henson

One-third of the “Three Armigos”, John Henson will be entering his sophomore season with an opportunity to rise up Milwaukee’s depth chart. While the aforementioned Ersan Ilyasova currently has possession of the starting gig but the up and coming and mobile Henson could overtake him with a strong performance at the start of the season.

Similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Henson’s main strength ties to his lanky 7’5 wingspan combined with an amazing level of agility that’s extremely rare amongst 6’10 forwards. In the small opportunities that he was given under the Scott Skiles/Jim Boylan reign, Henson was able to show off that agility by cutting and moving to the paint as an off-ball player. With his mid-range game still extremely raw (to be kind), Henson needed to use his natural traits to his own advantage. One of Henson’s more intriguing offensive weapons could be that little left-handed sky hook that he showcased during last season and will be looking to perfect in the upcoming season. That single move could  make Henson into an extremely dangerous offensive weapon because of how impossible it would be for an opponent to get their fingertips onto a skyhook that was launched by a player that’s as long as Henson.

Similar to Antetokounmpo, Henson possesses an amazing level of defensive potential because of their unique frame and levels of mobility. With that said, the one thing that’s preventing Henson from being an all-around good defender would be his inability to defend from the post because of his slim 220 pound frame. In an extremely small sample size, opponents averaged .97 PPP when they were posting up against Henson which put him near the bottom rungs of the league. While he could develop into a solid and mobile defender who could move in the way of a penetrating opponent but Henson still has a ways to go until he can define himself as a great defender.

Power Forward Overview

The combination of Ilyasova and Henson is one of the more intriguing units that Milwaukee has seen in recent future. The sharp-shooting Ilyasova should be able to take the reigns as one of the team’s top perimeter options while Henson continues to develop his offensive game while working inside the post. With Larry Sanders working inside the paint as the team’s main offensive rebounder, it’s pretty obvious that Ilyasova will be working with him in the starting lineup because of the unique dynamic that they both have. While Henson is an intriguing player who will continue to improve in all facets of his game, it would still be ideal for him to work as Milwaukee’s top reserve front-court player because of how he could be able to use his mobility to help ease the new guards in to Larry Drew’s up style of offense.