As the latter days of July elapse, we've reached the most barren part of the NBA year. The furious early days of free agency are behind us, as are the ever-intriguing Summer League matchups, when we happily forget the past, eagerly dissect the present, and wildly speculate about the future. Draft day once again brought significant renovations to the roster, but those times seem so long ago. These days most every Bucks fan is focused squarely on memories of Las Vegas, where Milwaukee's summer squad recently wrapped up a 4-1 stretch of games that taught us a whole lot, or perhaps very little.
The challenge of Summer League, or indeed any exhibition-esque basketball game featuring professional players, is always determining what sort of credence to lend the results. The perils of confirmation bias await those who lack vigilance (or just don't care enough to avoid it), but data is data, is it not?
So in fearless sifting and winnowing style, we take a broad look at the Bucks' undeniably successful Vegas campaign to determine, hopefully, what undeniable truths were uncovered in the Nevada desert.
1. Tobias Harris is ready for a larger role.
I can't think of a more obvious truth than this one. True, the role itself may remain a bit of a mystery, but after seeing Harris largely dismantle every opponent he faced in Vegas, there's really no argument for holding him back. If there's anything in basketball comparable to a baseball player tearing up AAA-ball, what we saw out of Harris likely qualifies. That's not an entirely fair comparison, since every baseball player is, to a large extent, trying to do the same thing, making it easy to pick out the player who is obviously doing it much better than everybody else. But Harris showed that, in the right "situation", he comfortably outclasses many of his contemporaries. That's where the comparison makes sense: if a guy is tearing up AAA, you might as well see what he can do in the bigs. Harris might struggle to do some things (and those things might be important), but his transition and inside game looked so far beyond that of a typical summer-leaguer, there's nowhere for him to go but up. And he's barely 20 years old!
2. John Henson's offensive game might be more developed than we thought.
Second item on the list and I'm already tossing in qualifiers. A necessary addition when we're talking about a 4-game sample, but the offensive skills and versatility John Henson displayed in SL was as pleasantly surprising as finding $20 in your winter coat pocket when you pull it out of the closet in November. Henson profiled well enough as a defender and rebounder to make most of us think he'd find a role in his rookie season. Then we saw his lefty hook. And his pick-and-pop stroke. And we smiled. The jumper is a nice addition, showing Henson could provide some amount of floor spacing while on the court. The Bucks have plenty of big who like to shoot it, though, and at least one who seems legitimately good at it (fingers crossed). The real treat was that hook, which is almost Skyhook-ian in it's unblockability. If Henson can develop and maintain the ability to get that shot off in traffic, there are precious few defenders who can challenge it. He already appears ahead of schedule.
3. The young guys have skills, but playmaking probably isn't one of them.
Shot-making wasn't much of a problem for the roster guys. Harris and Henson both made more than half their shots, while Doron Lamb made up for his 0-7 3pt shooting by earning and making a good number of free throw attempts. But much of that success was borne in transition, particularly for Harris. There were bright spots in the halfcourt, but little in the way of the electric playmaking one might see out of a premier talent. Surprisingly enough, much of Milwaukee's easy shot-creation last season was enabled by the team's system, not just individual players. When your two dominating perimeter players are Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, chances are you're not getting a ton of pure facilitation. Tobias Harris and Co. are more than capable of making quick and accurate swing passes, but they're not great ballhandlers and the decision-making needs work. In Vegas, Harris recorded twice as many turnovers (32) as assists (16). Henson, Lamb, and Larry Sanders combined for 12 helpers and 21 giveaways. The Bucks will almost certainly look to push the pace again this season to maximize the abilities of Jennings and Ellis, but for now there's little in the metaphorical pipeline in the way of additional shot-creating ability.
4. Larry Sanders should be feeling some fire under his feet, but he's not obsolete just yet.
Things didn't exactly go smoothly for Larry Sanders in Las Vegas, but the truth is little has changed from last season until now. Sanders' foul rate spiked from 4.8 PF/36 to 7.4 PF/36, a simultaneous testament to his defensive intensity and rawness. There were benefits to be reaped: most of Sanders' advanced defensive numbers improved dramatically last season. But until he focuses some of that intensity into a more refined play style, he's going to be restricted in minutes and role. There's room on basically every roster for a long, athletic PF who wreaks havoc on defense, but now the Bucks have a bunch of guys who kind of do that...and a lot of other stuff too. If Sanders wants to stick with the Bucks, let alone find a bigger role, he needs to strike a balance between playing to his strengths while also expanding his game. He's still valuable to the Bucks as a backup big who blocks shots and dunks, but he's definitely at risk of slipping behind his more versatile counterparts on the depth chart.
5. Doron Lamb can score even when he's not making his threes.
Lamb showed a highly developed ability to find his spots on the floor, particularly from mid-range. His pull-up looks smooth and he should be able to do some damage in the pick-and-roll. He might find it more difficult to get open when checked by players who are both bigger and quicker than the opposition he faced in Vegas, which will make the three-point shot a crucial element of his game. And don't worry about that--an 0-7 stretch over four games is nothing more than a blip in the career of a player who shot as well from the college arc as Lamb did. He'll find his shot.