For many Bucks fans, there's no more encouraging number than 33.9. That's the minutes per game figure for rookie sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo since he entered the starting lineup in mid-December. It's part of a largely unexpected youth movement the Bucks have put in place as a result of numerous injuries to their veteran players.
There have been a few encouraging signs, even if Milwaukee's record remains abysmal. Second-round pick Nate Wolters looked NBA-ready from day one, even if he lacks star potential. John Henson has taken a major step forward in his second season, providing consistent interior scoring and much better defense than last season. Brandon Knight, maligned as he's been, has put together an excellent stretch of games in recent weeks.
I got to thinking, as I'm sure many others have, about an all-youth lineup for the Bucks. Imagine a Bucks lineup that looks like this:
How would a lineup like that look? How would they perform? Well, let's be honest, they'd get wrecked most nights, but how would it happen? Let's take a look.
Defense, in general. We've haven't yet seen the Ultra-Tubeman lineup featuring Giannis, Henson, and Sanders, but we've seen enough to surmise that the trio could be devastating on defense. All three boast incredible length and surprising quickness for their size, allowing them to cover a lot of ground on the perimeter and in the pick and roll. Henson in particular has shown much better anticipation around the rim. With Larry Drew utilizing more zone schemes than his predecessors, the Tubemen have been a little more free to roam, and while results have been mixed against the NBA's better offensive teams, they've totally locked down lineups that don't have an elite off-the-dribble creator to break down the defense. Middleton and Knight have both established themselves as solid perimeter defenders as well. The only real weak point is Wolters, whose lack of speed or athleticism hampers his ability to defend what is a truly stacked group of NBA point guards.
Rebounding. Sort of related to defense, since forcing misses is mostly meaningless if you can't finish the possession with a rebound. Sanders, Henson, and Antetokounmpo make up a plus-rebounding frontcourt, with Sanders and Henson in particular excelling on the glass. The backcourt is also good, especially Knight, who ranks 6th among qualified point guards in total rebound rate according to ESPN.com. Sticking a bunch of individually good rebounders on the court together doesn't mean they'll definitely be good as a team, but this lineup should hold up pretty well.
Transition offense. With a pair of bigs that willingly run the floor and a point guard who likes to push the pace, the Bucks are capable of getting out on the break after almost any possession. Their biggest problem might be outlet passing, a spot where Henson and Sanders are merely adequate. Wolters has decent vision and Middleton is good at getting open behind the arc in transition, but what really puts Milwaukee over the top here is Giannis, who is already an absolute force on the break. Giannis covers a ton of ground with every step, and he's so good at getting to the rack that he's already getting the benefit of the doubt with whistles. And when he's not taking it himself, he always seems to make the right pass. As Steve put it the other day, he's not just surprising opponents, he's overwhelming them.
Shooting and spacing. This is the big problem that gives pause to many of us when we talk about the Sanders/Henson pairing, and it extends to the Bucks' all-youth lineup as a whole. Neither Sanders nor Henson need to respected outside the paint right now, and Nate Wolters hasn't shown three-point range yet. Knight has been a good three-point shooter for his career and seems to be shaking off a slow start, and the jury is still out on Giannis. The only consistent floor spacer in this group is Khris Middleton, who's hitting 45% of his triples after sinking only 31% last season. He's hit an even 50% of his corner 3s and is making 46% of his midrange shots. If Giannis, Middleton, and Knight are all sinking jumpers, the Bucks can manage, but they're too easy to defend when the shots aren't falling.
Ball security and shot creation. Most of this falls on Knight, who remains far behind his peers in terms of assisting teammates while taking care of the ball. But in general, the Bucks youngsters aren't great at creating good shots in the halfcourt. After Knight (28.8) and Wolters (26.9), the next highest assist rate among the young guys is John Henson's 11.4. Despite hitting over 60% of his shots under the basket, Henson isn't drawing a ton of defensive attention, and he's not finding open guys when help does come. Middleton has mostly been a catch-and-shoot guy. And perhaps the saddest stat of all: for all his flash, Antetokounmpo boasts the third-lowest AST% on the roster, ahead of only Ekpe Udoh and Ersan Ilyasova.