Do Bucks go big or go with shooters in NBA Draft? Exploring Milwaukee's options

As the 2024 NBA Draft approaches, the Milwaukee Bucks have two selections, Nos. 23 and 33, and an opportunity to draft a player who could make an impact for years to come.

With that in mind, Bucks beat writer Eric Nehm had a conversation with NBA Draft expert Sam Vecenie breaking down the possibilities, the prospects and what the Bucks could potentially do in this year’s draft.

Nehm: Before looking at this draft, I first want to look back at what has happened with some of the young players on the Bucks roster over the last few seasons. With the N0. 24 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, the Bucks took MarJon Beauchamp. After the 2022 draft, the Bucks grabbed A.J. Green on a two-way contract. With the No. 36 pick in the 2023 draft, they selected Andre Jackson Jr.

Over the last two seasons, all three players have seen time on the floor and played rotation minutes for the Bucks, but never found their way to consistent playing time under Mike Budenholzer, Adrian Griffin or Doc Rivers. Green is the one who has come closest to cementing a place in the rotation, so what do you think has led to an undrafted free agent being the player who has broken through and found the most secure footing among their young players?

Did they misidentify the skills of Beauchamp and Jackson? Did they just not get the right support and playing time from the coaching staff? What do you think they can learn from their process with those two players?

Vecenie: Honestly, I think it’s hard to evaluate what any of these players look like given the upheaval of scheme and coaching strategy they’ve had to deal with over the start of their careers. Every coach has a different philosophy on playing young guys, on what is important to them and their scheme, on what they care about and prioritize. It’s just been such a moving target.

I’ve never bought into Beauchamp as anything beyond an effort-and-energy bench wing, so maybe remove him momentarily from the equation. But Jackson, particularly, is a good example of this. When the Bucks drafted Jackson, they had just hired Griffin, who was clear about employing this uptempo, aggressive defensive scheme that would have been perfect for him. The team employed that scheme for all of about five games before the players decided that playing drop was a more effective option. Then the team midway through the year fired Griffin despite a strong record and hired Rivers, who has almost always employed a more conservative defensive scheme.

That’s not exactly an easy situation for a player like Jackson to try to manage. On top of that, this front office has bizarrely chosen to acquire players where shooting was the preeminent, significant concern at the top of their scouting report despite continuing to employ Giannis Antetokounmpo on their roster. That made absolutely no sense to me at the time, and continues to be dumbfounding. To me, that’s why Green has found it easier to find minutes. He’s the one who can shoot, and we know how important shooting is at the NBA level. He’s just kind of a better fit with the stars on this roster than the two guys they drafted.

Nehm: Moving our focus to this year, let’s take a closer look at the Bucks’ two current selections. Everyone has heard that this is a weaker draft because of the lack of high-level prospects at the top. The Bucks have not had a lottery pick since they took Thon Maker in 2016, so the top of the draft doesn’t have too much of an impact on them. But I’m curious: Does that lack of high-end prospects at the top of the draft affect the caliber of player available to them at No. 23? Or do you think the same caliber of player is available at No. 23 that would normally be there?

Vecenie: I have a group of about 19 to 20 players who I really like in this class, and the odds are that one of them will probably fall to the Bucks. To answer that question, I don’t personally see an enormous difference in quality between a normal draft at No. 23 and this one. I think the Bucks are likely selecting a similar player in terms of value.

I also think No. 33 is likely to be a similar-quality player, although I will mention that the players I have in that range mostly are high-risk, high-reward types. A lot of bigger shooters who could be particularly interesting as developmental projects for the Bucks.

The issues with this draft for me tend to be more with the top of the class, where I don’t think there is nearly as much star power as you’d like to see in a normal draft. Additionally, I don’t love the depth in this class as much as some might. I only have, I believe, 39 grades that are worth guaranteed contracts. I would expect that teams give out more than that on the evening because of the intense value of hitting on one of those with the new second-round exception contract structure, but I didn’t end up with as many as I normally do in a typical class. On top of it, I also don’t love the projects to be the undrafted free agency class as much as I normally do.

Nehm: With Giannis, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis, we have seen that the Bucks can cover all of the minutes they need from bigs in a 48-minute regular-season game and the playoffs. That might be growing more difficult as all three players get older, but if healthy, all three can cover all the minutes the Bucks need down low.

Considering the depth on the rest of their roster, can the Bucks afford to use one of their two selections on a big man? If they do, does it have to be a big who can offer something different than the other two defensively? For example, could they draft someone like Purdue center Zach Edey, who will largely play drop coverage like Lopez as a pick-and-r0ll defender?

Vecenie: I absolutely think they can consider that. The team desperately needs to find a long-term answer at the center position who can both defend and shoot. Lopez only has one year remaining on his deal and is not getting any younger.

The name that is incredibly interesting for them is Kel’el Ware, a center from Indiana with enormous measurements and tremendous athleticism for his size. He has potential to shoot and was an elite finisher last season. Having said that, his defensive engagement level can be a bit all over the place. He had moments where he was incredibly effective defensively on the interior and then also had some games where he was ineffectual with his hands in drop coverage. If Ware hits, he’s going to be a legitimate starting center. But there’s a chance that he ends up being a stats guy who doesn’t necessarily impact winning, either. It’s a fascinating bet on your developmental situation because his tools are out of this world.

Edey also would be interesting if the team is interested in playing drop coverage long-term, and I buy him turning into an effective NBA player. Having said that, I don’t know that he particularly works with the Bucks and Giannis, as I don’t think he’s ever going to be a shooter. But I think he is underrated as a drop-coverage defender, and I do think he’s going to be able to rebound and establish his position on almost anyone in the NBA outside of the supergiants.

Another name worth considering would be DaRon Holmes, a 6-foot-9 center from Dayton. He’s multiskilled and versatile. He can shoot from distance and is a really sharp passer for a big. He is comfortable putting the ball on the deck. But I do have some concerns about where exactly you play him defensively. (He’s a little too small for drop but might not be quick enough to switch, so it could end up being a show-and-recover type of situation.) He’s also not a tremendous rebounder for what the role is. There could be a bit of overlap between him and Portis, but I do think Holmes will likely be an NBA player.

Nehm: At the end of the first round, there will likely be some older prospects who people believe do not have the same level of upside as younger players and those who might be seen as a project. Do you think the Bucks can afford to grab a player who might be seen as needing a bit more time to be ready at the next level?

Vecenie: I don’t really have an issue with either strategy. NBA rookies you take at No. 23 are very unlikely to be good from the jump, especially for a team that sees itself as a contender next season. Honestly, the best-case scenario is that the player would be an eighth man, and even that feels quite aggressive. I think the Bucks should just be selecting the best player on their board, regardless of age.

If that’s 23-year-old Creighton wing Baylor Scheierman, because they love his shooting, passing and rebounding skill on the wing, then so be it. If that’s 23-year-old Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek, because they want a backup who has excellent dribble-pass-shoot skills, then so be it. If that’s 19-year-old AJ Johnson from the Illawarra Hawks of the NBL, because they love his upside and potential as a secondary scorer next to Damian Lillard and see him the same way the Blazers saw Anfernee Simons, that’s totally cool, too. But you need to stick to your board and principles and ultimately take the player you believe has the best chance of success and development within your scheme, your situation and your organization.

Nehm: Let’s move from the philosophical space to more prospect-based questions. If you look at the Bucks’ starting lineup right now, there is somewhat of an open space at shooting guard surrounding their core four. Let’s start there as we take a look at prospects.

For a moment, let’s imagine the Bucks insert this prospect into the starting lineup and play him next to the core four. Knowing that this player is going to be expected to play next to Lillard in the backcourt and likely bring a high-level effort on the defensive end, who are some of the prospects you can imagine being available around No. 23 who might fit the bill?

Vecenie: As I mentioned above, I think something will either have to had gone very wrong with the Bucks’ season for this to be the result, or they will have had to knock this selection out of the park in a way that this front office hasn’t shown a capacity for doing since Jon Horst took over. Even the player they ostensibly hit on, Donte DiVincenzo, didn’t actually return much value to their organization because of his struggles after a foot injury he suffered in the 2021 NBA playoffs.

In terms of players I think might be around and be able to play minutes next year, it’s hard because it needs to be someone defensively capable who can also knock down shots. Scheierman stands out. He’s an excellent shooter who can really fire off movement and also is a sharp ballhandler and passer for his size. Defensively, he plays with toughness and did a great job on Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht in the NCAA Tournament, but I do worry quite a bit about foot speed.

If you’re talking about stepping in on defense and providing value, the only name that really stands out is Virginia wing/forward Ryan Dunn, but he’s more of a four man as opposed to a two or a three, and his offense is so far behind that I don’t think you could play him with Giannis now and see it result in anything other than an immediate double-team.

I didn’t really love the defense from a lot of the other wings in this range in terms of day-one impact, including Kansas’ Johnny Furphy, Baylor’s Ja’Kobe Walter and Cal’s Jaylon Tyson. I thought all three struggled in some way, shape or form. You might be able to convince me that Miami’s Kyshawn George or Bobi Klintman of the NBL’s Cairns Taipans — as older players who can shoot — might be able to figure some of this out, but they’re both still pretty inexperienced will need some time at the NBA level to sort through defensive coverages. The aforementioned Johnson ticks all of the boxes as a shooter and an athletic defender who I thought came in and gave Illawarra good minutes by the end of the season in the NBL, but at less than 170 pounds, he’s no way prepared physically for the NBA right now. If they were taking a long-term approach, though, I don’t mind him as an interesting swing for the fences.

I’m not really expecting someone who can slot right into the lineup here given the specific needs of what a fifth starter in Milwaukee needs to bring to the table on both ends of the court with how the team’s roster is built.

Nehm: As you go up the positional scale and move toward players who might be seen more as forwards than guards on the wing, who could potentially fit in Milwaukee?

Vecenie: With this Bucks roster around Giannis, they can’t draft another non-shooter. That’s the most important thing to me.

I know the defense struggled this year in the backcourt with Malik Beasley, but I think it’s cheaper on the free-agency market to find defense than it is to find shooting. And frankly, I think the shooting is more important as long as the player it comes with is at least capable of making basic defensive rotations in a way that Beasley struggled with last season.

If you’re looking at bigger wing forwards, it is worth mentioning both Klintman and George are a bit slow-footed and not particularly explosive, but both have some inherent creativity and can really shoot the ball at their size. George is about 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and Klintman is about 6-foot-9 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. I think at their size, they probably have a better chance to defend than some smaller players, but I don’t see them as being impact guys on that end, either. Furphy, mentioned above, also is quite big. He at least gives effort defensively and is a bit more athletically functional laterally, but he is high-waisted and I think his strength level will cause issues for him early on.

The last name I’ll mention here also is a project: Tyler Smith from G League Ignite. The Bucks have shown a willingness to evaluate and draft from that pool of players before, selecting Beauchamp. Smith is a much more interesting player at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He’s absolutely going to shoot the ball at the four or five position, and he played the five with the Ignite in a limited role as a pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll or spot shooter who would occasionally get freedom to take advantage of mismatches. He’s probably further away from all of these players on defense — he was a mess rotationally and in terms of his natural instincts this year as a teenager — but his upside is pretty tremendous. It’s exceptionally hard to find athletes this big who can shoot this beautifully as teenagers. I don’t mind the idea of them taking that kind of swing as long as it involves a shooter, as I think he and Giannis together in the frontcourt defensively would be OK in a couple of years, once he gets more experience.

(Photo of Kal’el Ware: David Berding / Getty Images)

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