Milwaukee Bucks: Christian Wood and the winding road to Milwaukee

For Christian Wood, a place in an NBA rotation has proven elusive. What has blocked this promising path, and can the Milwaukee Bucks provide another opportunity?

When Christian Wood stepped on the floor at Cox Pavilion for the Milwaukee Bucks’ first 2018 Las Vegas Summer League game, no one was expecting to see a player that simply did not belong.  After only one game it became apparent, though; he did not belong, only because he was that dominant.

Wood was so dominant that an All-NBA Summer League First Team spot was awarded to him two weeks later, after comfortably averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for the Bucks’ Vegas entry.

Perhaps just as important as the stats was the fact Wood aced the NBA eye test. The modern NBA craves long-armed big men who can use the pick-and-roll to either dive to the rim with functional athleticism and co-ordination, or just as comfortably pop to the perimeter to stretch the floor.   Add these attributes to switch-ability and rim-protection on the defensive end, and all of a sudden you have a player archetype that makes NBA front offices sit up and take notice.

The making of an NBA rotation player is there for the 22-year-old, but an NBA rotation spot has proven elusive for Wood since going undrafted in the 2015 NBA draft.

After signing a training camp deal with the Milwaukee Bucks on August 14, the excitement from Wood’s Summer League play now has an opportunity to carry over to training camp and preseason at a minimum. The question still remains however: with flashes of eye popping talent and an in-demand skill set, why hasn’t Wood latched on to an NBA rotation in his three years since leaving UNLV?

A top-100 recruit in high school, Wood went on to play collegiate ball at UNLV.  After averaging only 13 minutes per game as a freshman in mostly a reserve role, the 6’10” Wood cemented himself as an impact collegiate player in his second year, earning Second Team All-Mountain West honors by averaging 15.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG, and 2.7 BPG. These numbers, combined with a 7’3” wing-span, meant Wood was firmly on the NBA scouts radar in the spring of 2015.

It was in this pre-draft process that things seemed to go awry for Wood, though. Once thought of as a potential lottery pick, teams suddenly became bearish on Wood’s draft stock as some red flags were uncovered. Despite the flashy highlights, great statistics, and near-unlimited versatility on both ends of the court, his lack of court awareness and effort on defense, combined with the physicality question mark of a slimmer frame, had some draft pundits questioning the capital teams should be willing to spend on Wood.

To make matters worse, Wood measured in at 14.7 percent body fat at the NBA draft combine, outside of the normal range for a lankier NBA prospect, giving scouts more ammunition in terms of the energy, willingness, and commitment questions.

Being one of the final players to officially declare for the NBA draft, combined with only five weeks between the combine and draft night, Wood simply did not have enough time to flip the script on those reputation concerns, and eventually went undrafted.

After playing Summer League with the Houston Rockets that summer, Wood signed a partially guaranteed deal with the Philadelphia 76ers a couple of weeks prior to the open of 2015 training camps, and did well enough to earn a spot on the roster to begin the season. Wood spent his rookie year between the G League and the 76ers, appearing in a grand total of 17 NBA games.

Immediately following a second year of Summer League, this time with the 76ers, Wood opted to sign with the Charlotte Hornets for his second NBA season. His second year, however, was not dissimilar to his first, spending time between the G League and the NBA, logging minutes in only 13 total NBA games.

Wood did not land an NBA deal entering the 2017-18 season, and ended up back on the 76ers G League affiliate after initially signing a deal overseas, only to be waived before playing in any games. He shined for a full year in the 2017-18 G League with the Delaware 87ers, averaging 23.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.8 blocks per game, while shooting a very respectable 54.1 percent from the field, 32.1 percent from three-point range, and 79.6 percent from the free throw line.

Even with these gaudy G League numbers, there were still moments of visible lack of effort.  A proven NBA player may deservingly take a play or two off every so often, but when that reputation has lingered since college, NBA scouts may not offer that same type of lee-way. Pure talent and physical ability were checked off the list years ago, so Wood’s clearest path back to the NBA likely includes putting these intangibles concerns to rest, and finding a team willing to develop the rest.

Enter the Milwaukee Bucks.

The big man’s 2018 Summer League performance delivered plenty to pique the interest of both the Bucks’ front office and the die-hard fans such who can’t live without organized basketball in the summer.

When training camp begins in a few weeks, the Bucks will first be looking for firm answers to the same questions that have followed Wood for over three years. The 22-year-old seems ready to find a team to stick with, and is confident that he can be an “X-factor” in the NBA according to a recent HoopsHype piece by Bryan Kalbrosky.

Wood is saying all the right things in regard to the offseason work he is putting in. He specifically mentions his focus on conditioning, diet, and his three-point shot; all things that could certainly help Wood’s performance to pop in training camp the way it did in Summer League. Shedding the previous reputation of effort and concentration concerns will still be paramount, and if it can happen rather quickly, all bets are off in regard to who will finish camp with the Bucks’ final roster spot.

As it currently stands, Wood will likely have to beat out Tyler Zeller and Shabazz Muhammad. Although on the surface this seems possible, if not even probable, both Zeller and Muhammad have their own claims staked to the roster spot.

Zeller, the contractual incumbent, was obtained last season for a second round pick (and Rashad Vaughn!), a controversial price for a backup big man. In limited minutes, Zeller proved consistent and generally dependable and built a quick rapport around the basket with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Muhammad, also a mid-season addition last year, proved to also be a valuable change of pace option at the end of the Milwaukee bench, despite being thrust into questionable lineups.  Muhammad may also have the advantage of positional scarcity on the wing, as the Brook Lopez signing, combined with holdovers John Henson and Thon Maker, may make carrying a fourth center such as Wood or Zeller a less intriguing option from a pure roster construction standpoint.

The question may simply come down to what do the Bucks value out of the final roster spot.

If they opt for a developmental high-ceiling project regardless of position, Wood fits that bill perfectly assuming he can extinguish the intangibles concerns. Maybe the Bucks feel that Mike Budenholzer and his staff, who spent years building young Atlanta Hawks players into consistent role players, can work their player development magic on the likes of Thon Maker and Wood to fulfill that modern big man archetype, to put next to Giannis for years to come.

Christian Wood believes he can be an NBA X-factor. If Jon Horst and Mike Budenholzer see that potential as well, this may only be the beginning of Wood’s NBA story.