The Milwaukee Bucks' summer league team took part in their final tune-up Friday before shipping off to play five games in Las Vegas. The Bucks open their schedule Saturday night against the Grizzlies at 9 pm, and though none of the games will be televised, you can watch them all live at NBA.com.
Talking to players and coaches at the Cousins Center on Friday, It quickly became evident that Scott Skiles and his staff have taken this week's preparations very seriously. If you've ever watched a summer league game, you know things can tend to get sloppy. With just a week to prepare as a team and a host of NBA hopefuls aiming to prove their worth, it's not uncommon to see sub-par ball movement or non-existent defensive rotations. But members of the coaching staff seem determined not to let those things happen.
"One of the things we try to do in our practice sessions is talk with the players about the way we want to play, and that's with a lot of ball movement and player movement," said assistant coach Jim Boylan. "We did a lot of drills with that in mind. When things start to break down a little bit, we're able to give our players a reference point, pull them back and say 'we want to do things the way we did them back in the Cousins Center.'"
Added player development coach Bill Peterson, "Scott's done a really good job of making them understand that we're running these sets and we're doing certain things [for a reason]. We said to the players,'This is what we need to do: we need to do a better job of taking care of the ball and getting certain guys shots.'
"We're just not going to run around helter-skelter. If the ball is on one side, drive and kick it to the other side instead of guys taking it and dribble dribble dribble dribble. It's [Skiles'] system and what he wants, and the players have to adhere to it."
Director of player personnel Dave Babcock--the man largely responsible for putting the summer league roster together--emphasized the amount of work the coaching staff has done to make sure the team plays the right way. "We've spent a lot of time on defense and a lot of time on executing some stuff in a half court offense, more time than any summer league team I've ever been with."
The team's preparations have made a positive first impression on lottery pick Joe Alexander as well. "This week has been really fun, especially since we've put in so many plays. I'm really getting a sense of what we're going to do during the season. They've kept a tight handle on us, and if we aren't doing what we're supposed to be doing then they set us straight. But from what I've seen this team seems to be on the ball and everyone is out here picking stuff up quickly."
Along with getting a look at his draft picks, GM John Hammond will be keeping a close eye on the summer league as a whole. "It is definitely [an evaluation tool]," noted Hammond. "Any time guys are out on the floor, whether it be our players or other players around the league, guys are always being evaluated. Any time you go out there and say 'I'm willing to compete,' people are going to judge you on doing so."
Rookie forwards Joe Alexander and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute have made positive impressions on both the Bucks' staff and their fellow players during their first week on the job.
"Joe is crazy athletic" said former Vanderbilt star Matt Freije, Alexander's summer league teammate. "There would be times when he would post up and then turn around to shoot it and I'd be like 'What are you doing?' because I'm thinking he's going to get his shot blocked, but next thing you know he's jumping over you and actually shooting down at the basket."
Ramon Sessions also seemed excited about the new rookie additions. "Both are very talented. Both are very long and they both defend well. Their offense is going to come and they've got potential. They're both great guys and it's been fun playing with them."
Babcock was equally impressed. "This week has been great for them. Luc and Joe are both hardworking, they're both athletic and they've been exactly what we wanted when we picked them."
Bill Peterson Keeps It Real
Long after the other players had left the court, I spotted Alexander working with development coach Bill Peterson on his post turnaround jump shot. I asked Peterson if that was Alexander's current go-to move, and he responded bluntly.
"No. I don't know that he has one right now. It will kind of be determined as he goes and where his role fits in, whether he's playing 3 or 4. If he's playing the 4, I think his advantage will be stepping out on the perimeter and making an 18-foot jump shot. He's got a good stroke and he's pretty quick . If he's playing a smaller 3, maybe he pulls up and shoots a turnaround jumper, but I'd say right now he doesn't really have a go to move."
Peterson is also continuing his work with Sessions and offered more real talk on what he thinks the second year point guard needs to improve on.
"He's got to be more vocal and step up and run the team. He's got to make better decision and be more juiced. He's not a rookie any more, so he can't make rookie mistakes. He's got to be willing to get in there and be more authoritative, and he's got to have a better defensive presence.
"Scott's going to really make our guys accountable for defense, and Ramon's got to be a guy who really gets after his man, and more than that he's always on the help-side, so he's got to learn how to be better on the helping out."
Sessions smiled when asked about the work he's been working on with Peterson. "Coach Pete...man. I've been doing everything. Left handed, right handed dribbling. Shooting. He's giving it all to me and I've just got to put it all together."
Awvee Story, a member of the Bucks' less-than-memorable 07/08 campaign, is trying to keep his head up after the Bucks declined to pick up the option on his contract for next season. "I'm just staying positive. If it's not going to be here than somewhere else. Staying positive is how I've gotten myself this far in my career."
When asked about what went wrong last season, a pained expression appeared on Storey's face. "I've really closed that chapter of the book. I've let that go. It was very frustrating, especially not playing much. That was a really painful experience and I don't even want to get into that. That's the past."
Veteran Thomas Opening Eyes
When asked separately who's stood out to them throughout the week, both Boylan and Freije were quick to name John Thomas, the former Minnesota big man and a veteran of four NBA seasons. Said Boylan: "John Thomas is a guy who has some experience and has played well. He has just has a leg up on most of the guys here because he's been around and understands the NBA game. He's definitely played well."
Teammates Happy for Bogut
Both Awvee Storey and Ramon Sessions seemed genuinely pleased at the news of Andrew Bogut's contract extension.
"I'm very excited. He's very worth it," said Storey. "Bogut's a great guy, definitely a good player. Just a great guy. I've grown to like him a lot during the season and had a good relationship with him. I'm very happy for him."
I asked Storey if he thought Bogut could become a leader on the Bucks. "Bogut's leadership comes on the court and in the huddle he'd say some stuff to guys. He's definitely got leadership skills."
Ramon Sessions echoed Storey's thoughts about Bogut's extension. "I'm happy for him. I've been talking to him over e-mail. Bogues is definitely worth it."