While a recent shoulder injury has slowed him down, third-year Milwaukee Bucks wing Sterling Brown has taken an unfortunate step back on the offensive side of the ball this season.
Since the arrival of reigning NBA Coach of the Year, Mike Budenholzer, the Milwaukee Bucks continue to take pride on the depth they have amassed over the last couple of years.
On a nightly basis, bench contributors and all-purpose role players have come up in big spots for the Bucks and it’s been a critical reason for why the Bucks are outpacing the rest of the NBA with a 30-5 record at this point in the season.
But once again, Bucks wing Sterling Brown has been on the outside looking in when it comes to getting consistent minutes in the team’s rotation under Budenholzer.
That isn’t to say Brown hasn’t gotten some run throughout his third season in Milwaukee as he’s averaging 16.9 minutes through his 25 appearances on the season.
And it’s been over that time on the floor that Brown has showcased his defensive intensity and hustle that has helped him land seventh in the NBA with a 97.3 defensive rating, per NBA.com/stats.
However, it’s been his growing struggles on the offensive end that may explain why he’s been leapfrogged by the likes of Donte DiVincenzo, Pat Connaughton and veteran contributors Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews in the rotation. The 24-year-old’s offensive game has steadily fallen off in recent weeks, in part due to a shoulder injury that had kept Brown out of four straight games in late November into early December.
Ever since returning to action, Brown has been unable to regain the flashes that had previously come over the year and he’s been given plenty of opportunity to make a solid impression, considering the string of routs the Bucks have compiled over this month. For the month of December, Brown averaged 5.3 points on 18-of-53 shooting from the field (34 percent) and 7-for-26 from long range (26.9 percent) over 17.8 minutes in his 11 appearances.
The former Mustang’s scoring has suffered because he’s regressed in the very areas that the Bucks’ offense revolves around the most, schematically: from beyond the arc and directly at the basket.
Regarding the former, Brown’s 3-point percentage has dipped to a career-worst 33.3 percent clip, thanks to his December downturn. And the reason why he’s slid shooting the ball in recent weeks can be explained by his catch-and-shoot opportunities where he’s hit just 16 of his 47 3-point attempts on such shots, good for a mark of 34 percent (Brown hit 38.1 percent of his 118 catch-and-shoot threes last season).
Yet, it’s on the finishing front that the most disappointing development to come from Brown’s third NBA season can be found, especially after having made strong strides as an improved slasher to the basket over his sophomore campaign where he converted 59.6 percent of his 129 attempts within the restricted area last year. This season, that mark has tumbled down to 53.8 percent on 39 attempts from that same area of the floor.
What’s more concerning is that any flashes that Brown showed as an improved ball handler and shot creator for himself and for others has been lost, at least temporarily.
Take Brown’s ability to drive with the ball in his hands, for example. Per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, Brown is hitting exactly one-third of his 21 shot attempts on the 51 drives he’s attempted this season. Last year, Brown converted 54.3 percent of his 70 shot attempts taken on the 154 drives he generated.
And the strides he previously enjoyed as a capable playmaker and decision maker when thrust into a lead ball handling role have similarly vanished as he’s tallying 27 assists to 24 turnovers, making for a 1.13 assist-to-turnover ratio. Not to keep comparing Brown’s past performance with his current struggles, but he logged a 1.83 assist-to-turnover ratio last year.
Needless to say, Brown’s offensive performance has taken a brutal hit all across the board and it’s been precisely why the breakout all Bucks fans have been wanting to see out of Brown over the last two seasons still sits on the back burner.
That isn’t to say Brown can’t improve in the remaining months of the regular season and again, he’s proved to be a useful contributor on the defensive end where his ability to do the dirty work and clean up on the glass have been a bright spot in what’s been an otherwise disappointing campaign so far.
However, with trade season upon us and with just a month until the deadline, the Bucks will have to weigh whether they can wait on Brown correcting his struggles as the year progresses or look for some additional firepower to beef up their complementary shooting from the bench unit even further.
That’s only speculation on my part, but the fact that Brown has taken a step back ahead of his restricted free agency next summer makes for a precarious next several months, provided he’s not able to regain the flashes that made him an interesting piece within the Bucks’ foundation only some time ago.