As Brandon goes, so go the Bucks?
That's a phrase Bucks fans have a long history with, having spent the last few seasons watching the Bucks' mediocre fortunes ebb and flow with the mercurial talents of Brandon Jennings. And even with a new Brandon in town, it's proving a similar story in the 13/14 season.
Since returning from a pair of hamstring injuries, Brandon Knight has averaged 23.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 4.8 apg on .473/.455/.870 shooting in five Bucks wins, numbers that don't include his 26-point/14-assist line in an overtime loss in Charlotte or the 36 points he dropped against the Knicks in another overtime loss. Either way, the implication is clear: when Knight is playing well--and on this Bucks team that usually involves Knight scoring points--the Bucks suddenly seem like a competitive basketball team.
The problem is that Knight continues to battle inconsistent shooting and a penchant for turnovers, two major reasons why the Bucks remain the worst team in the NBA in spite of Knight's increasingly encouraging play. But even here there's some reasons to feel encouraged. After coughing it up an ugly eight times against the Knicks, Knight has 40 assists and 10 turnovers over the past six games, a span in which he's averaged 20.0 ppg, 6.7 apg, 6.3 rpg, 1.7 steals, and 1.7 turnovers on .450/.322/.786 shooting. All those good things come in spite of the fact that he really hasn't had a good run from three-point range all season, which is surprising given that's really the one area where he'd been above-average during his disappointing two years in Detroit.
There hasn't been any revolution in his game this season--his true shooting numbers in aggregate remain just under the below-average 51% he posted in Detroit--though he's generally been slightly better in most categories while showing a more point guard-like shot distribution. A year ago Knight scored a poor 0.69 points-per-play in P&R (27% of plays) and 0.73 in isolation (7% of plays), but made up for it by getting good chunks of offense on spot-ups (0.99 PPP, 27%) and in transition (0.94, 20%). None of those efficiency numbers are impressive--his P&R figure was actually the highest in the league at 133rd.
Fast forward to this season. His P&R and isolation shares are both higher (36% P&R, 10% iso) and better (0.73 P&R, 0.87 iso) while his spot-up opportunities are down (from 20% to 15%) and have been less effective (0.93). And as we saw last night numerous times, he's taking advantage of transition opportunities more consistently, upping his scoring to 1.1 PPP on the break on a slightly higher share of opportunities (23%). Against the Lakers Knight was 6/11 shooting out of P&R chances and 6/8 on the break, punishing the Laker defense with equal doses of jump-shooting and aggressive takes to the basket. With the Bucks lacking a go-to scorer even before O.J. Mayo was relegated to the bench, it's critical that Knight score effectively for the Bucks to have any chance of competing consistently.
None of this is to say that we have a brand-new Brandon Knight on our hands, or that the Bucks have found their point guard for the next decade. Knight entered the season facing two big questions: 1) Was he an NBA-caliber starter and 2) Was he best suited to the point position he preferred. Most people seemed focused on the latter question, all the while ignoring that Knight hadn't been particularly good by any standard in his first two years in Detroit.
One-third of the way through the season I'll stop short of saying we have a conclusive answer to either question, and for now I'll blame it on a combination of Knight's inconsistency and the, ah, "uniqueness" of the Bucks' current situation. It's not that 20 starts is a tiny sample size, but the Knight story you want to tell also depends a bit on the dataset you want to cherry-pick; the last 5-10 games tell a far more flattering story than the overall view, both for Knight's personal numbers and the Bucks' overall offense. And then there's the question of what exactly the benchmark for Knight's success should be in the context of a team in disarray like the Bucks. Either his lack of consistent playmaking has a fair bit to do with the Bucks' league-worst offense, or it's par for the course on a team with few scoring weapons to begin with...or something in between. At minimum, Knight has shown he can be an instant-offense scorer that could be a major asset as a reserve, though his ambitions are understandably higher.
So what now? Well, Knight may never be the "true" PG many would like, but there's a good chance he can still be a useful and possibly even starting-caliber NBA point guard in the long-term. Again: maybe. Now's probably also a good time to reiterate that romanticizing the "purity" of point guards is a bit antiquated anyway, especially on a team short of scorers like the Bucks. That's not an excuse for how ugly the Bucks' offense has been, but culpability for the Bucks' league-worst offense extends well beyond Knight. In the short-term, Larry Drew's latest desperation move--benching Khris Middleton in favor of pairing Luke Ridnour with Knight in the backcourt--may help bring out the best in Knight, or it may be just another blip in a season full of pointless lineup tweaking. That said, it does seem like complementing Knight with another ballhandler/playmaker will likely be needed to help bring out the best in him. Eventually that might be Giannis Antetokounmpo, but for now Drew only has Ridnour and Nate Wolters to throw at the problem.
The good news is that the Bucks seem intent on giving Knight his chance to prove himself one way or the other. If he can't handle the responsibility of being a starting point guard, then a) we'll know it sooner rather than later and b) the Bucks figure to be better positioned for a makeover next June...if you know what I mean.