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Vegas Redux: Jennings, Meeks and Alexander

Summer League ended three weeks ago, but alas, I wrote most of my wrapup and then forgot about it.  To take your mind off the riveting Ramon Sessions contract watch, check out my impressions below and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Sadly, the Bucks' Vegas adventure is over. We've now entered the dog days of summer, with not a game in sight for months, but thankfully the Bucks' youngsters acquitted themselves pretty well, finishing 4-1 after a last second loss to Toronto in their finale. Apologies for not putting together recaps for the last two games, but aside from a technical problem that cut out part of the first half of one game, I did manage to see every other minute of summer league, including the first two games in person.  So it seems obvious to recount the good, the bad, and the ugly in one bloated post. 

Brandon Jennings
32.4 mpg, .379/.429/.778, 14.6 ppg, 8.2 apg, 2.6 rpg, 3.6 stl, 4.2 to, 3.0 pf

A month ago I wrote that Jennings scared me to death.  After a stellar prep career and a forgettable season (production-wise) in Rome, I had no idea what to make of the guy.  Aside from scouts, it seemed like no one had actually seen Jennings play, and even those who did catch a fleeting glimpse of him in Rome had no precedent against which to judge a 19-year old American playing in the upper echelons of Europe.  To further complicate matters, Jennings wasn't even the primary ballhandler much of the time he did play in Italy.

Fast forward to the end of July, and I'm feeling pretty excited.  And relieved. While he has the occasional tendency to rip off shots of questionable quality, the kid's a true point guard.  Period.  His first instinct is to pass, and he seems much more comfortable in the slow-it-down, halfcourt style than many suggested.  Don't get me wrong, he loves to push it off turnovers or rebounds and that's where he's probably at his best.  But he's certainly very capable of slowing the game down and running the offense.  Given how many NBA players the Bucks brought to Vegas, he didn't have to carry the team from a scoring perspective, which is good since he won't be able to do it during the regular season either.  As we discussed in the game threads, there's a lot of T.J. Ford in his game right now, though he's got more upside as a scorer and seems to have a kind of court presence that T.J. didn't have.

Jennings' performances did however highlight a number of areas where he needs to improve. A more fundamentally sound jumper is an obvious one, as Jennings has a tendency to get off-balance unnecessarily and his follow-through is inconsistent.  While he made a an excellent 43% of his three pointers, he made just 16/45 twos, which was in part due to a lack of comfort shooting mid-range jumpers. 

It's also somewhat related to his body.  At 170 pounds, Jennings doesn't have a great ability to absorb contact when he gets into the lane, meaning he's limited in his ability to score around the rim (unlike a bigger guard like Ramon Sessions).  He reminds me a lot of T.J. Ford in that regard, as his athleticism doesn't always show in the halfcourt.  Jennings' ability to finish also seems to be limited slightly by the fact that he's a two-footed leaper.  Watch any highlight reel of Jennings dunks and you'll see what I mean.  When he has a moment to gather himself, his leaping ability is breathtaking, but it's rare that you see the same above-the-rim stuff when he's jumping off one foot.  And since it's generally more natural to go off one foot when you're accelerating past a defender to the hoop, it would seem that affects Jennings' ability to get up as high as he might on a breakaway.  When he does use his speed to create an angle into the lane, he's more likely to skip the ball out to an open shooter or use a floater.

On defense, Jennings can best be described as a pest.  Overall he looked like an enthusiastic defender most of the week, which will certainly help his chances of getting meaningful minutes as a rookie.  Jennings likes pressuring the ball and has extremely quick hands, as evidenced by his Vegas-leading 3.6 steals per game.  His lack of size was exposed most notably by Tyreke Evans on a few occasions, and while he'll no doubt benefit from adding 10-15 pounds, he'll never be a big guy.  Fortunately, he's pretty crafty.  One of my favorite moments of the week was after Evans had powered through him a couple times on the block and was looking to do it again on the left side.  Fronting Evans, he skied to pick off the entry pass one handed, immediately rocketed off on the break and found Joe Alexander for a layup. 

His quickness should allow him to prevent penetration better than most guards, but he was inconsistent in that regard in Vegas.  On the wings he frequently overplayed opposing PGs to force them baseline or to their offhand, but there were also times when bigger players caught him off-guard and drove right around him.  As with so many talented young players, it's less a matter of tools and more a question of focus, coaching, and learning to make the right reads.

Where does Jennings fit in come regular season?  As a general rule it's not the best idea to count on major production from 19-year old point guards, and I'm not quite ready to make an exception to that rule based on just five summer league games.  Still, the idea of Jennings starting at some point this season no longer seems far-fetched, though Scott Skiles also doesn't seem like the type to hand the job over in training camp.  The fate of Ramon Sessions will also no doubt factor into Jennings' role, though I would expect Ridnour to be gone by November if Sessions is somehow retained.  Either way, Jennings should be getting no less than 15-20 minutes per game and possibly a whole lot more.

Joe Alexander
32.0 mpg, .397/.250/.737, 16.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.2 stl, 1.4 blk, 3.0 pg, 1.0 to

Joe's week can be broken into two parts. There were the first two games, when he made just 5/25 shots and made you want to pull your hair out.  Enough said.  Though there were some redeeming aspects to his game--getting to the line a lot, creating decent looks--overall it was just tough to watch, especially when Anthony Randolph score 42 points and led the league in scoring despite not even seeming to break a sweat. 

Fortunately, the last three games were much more promising.  Alexander looked much more comfortable in averaging 20.3 ppg (22/43 fg), 6.7 rebounds, 2 blocks and turning it over just once in 101 minutes.  Obviously we have to hope his finish to the week is a better representation of his progress, but there are still plenty of rough edges.

There's never been a question about his physical talents, and there certainly weren't any in Vegas.  The difference is that this time around Joe showed a much better feel for, you know, how to play basketball.  Alexander did most of his damage in isolation from 18-20 feet out, where his handle and quickness consistently gave defenders fits.   Of course, this is still summer league and he was often matched against PFs, so he won't always have the same advantage in terms of footspeed. 

But even here he had moments where his lack of feel was exposed.  When he's facing up his defender in isolation it's not as apparent, but with his back to the basket or when help comes he's liable to do something...awkward.  For that reason he gets his shot-blocked more often than he should given his athleticism.  And his explosiveness is mostly north-south, so when forced to change directions he's not nearly as effective.

I know most people have latched onto the idea of Joe as a natural small forward, but at this point he seems like a combo forward who should be seeing minutes on more of a matchup basis.  Against PFs who aren't post scorers, Joe will almost always have a footspeed advantage offensively without getting taken down to the block defensively.  Meanwhile, less offensively gifted small forwards aren't generally going to be as strong and are less likely to expose Joe's weakness as a perimeter defender.  And that's kind of the problem--from what we've seen so far, he's just not at the point where you can pencil him in for major minutes at a given position.  For that reason it's perhaps not surprising that Gery Woelfel and others have questioned whether Alexander will even still be a Buck in November.

Jodie Meeks
32.2 mpg, .557/.533/.818, 19.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.8 apg, 1.0 stl, 1.4 to, 2.0 pf

If Jennings wants some advice on how to shoot a basketball, he doesn't have to go far to find a good role model.  Meeks' shooting was even better than advertised, which is saying a lot considering he came in neck and neck with Steph Curry as the best pure shooter in the entire draft.  But while Curry never got his mojo working in Vegas, Meeks was the model of consistency.  Meeks' quick release makes him ideal for running off screens or taking one or two dribbles before he fires away, and his posture is almost always textbook--feet squared to the hoop, balanced, and vertical (he also made a couple off-balance shots for good measure). 

Most importantly, his production was also consistent, making 50% or better of his shots in each game and leading the Bucks with 19.0 ppg.  It wasn't all jumpers either, as he also got into the lane and scored with his off-hand a few times as well.  That said, he's a shooter and anything he can do beyond that is gravy at this point.  In a perfect world Meeks might develop into a Hersey Hawkins or Allan Houston-like pure shooter/scorer, but if he can be a taller Eddie House that would certainly be a useful thing right off the bat.

With Charlie Bell as the only other shooting guard on the roster behind Mike Redd, Meeks will no doubt get an opportunity to show his stuff this year.  Bell has started slowly the past two years and the Bucks are very short on perimeter scoring, so it sure seems like Meeks will have every opportunity to regular burn as a rook.

Amir Johnson
24.4 mpg, .567/.000/.545, 9.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 blk, 3.2 to, 7.0 pf

Sure, it would have been nice to see Johnson have a monster summer league to fuel our hopes that he finally puts things together.  But in the end, Johnson's fifth trip to Vegas didn't suggest anything we didn't already know about him: he's raw but somewhat talented offensively, has the tools to be a good defender, and fouls way too much.  Johnson probably wasn't as amped up about being in Vegas as his rookie teammates, and he managed only a couple good games over the course of the week.  The high point come came against the Bulls, when he made 5/6 fg in scoring 17 along with eight boards.  But he was also rather anonymous for long stretches.

He had a handful of short jump-hooks (usually on early post touches) and even showed the ability to drive to the hoop and finish a few times.  But overall I don't think it's fair to expect more than athletic garbageman at this point, especially given his stop-start tenure in Detroit. Johnson should benefit from playing with a creative playmaker like Jennings, and the Sacramento game was an obvious example as Jennings served up to alley-oops and a breakaway dunk for Johnson. 

Defensively, he took a lot of fouls challenging guys around the hoop, so I'm not as worried as some are on that front.  He might not be able to stay on the floor for 35 mpg with that style, but I don't see him playing those kind of minutes anyway.

His starting gig at PF is very much in doubt now that Ersan Ilyasova and Hakim Warrick have been added to the roster, but he brings a different look than either of those guys and can also play center in small lineups.  At the very least Skiles has better option than playing Malik Allen, Francisco Elson or Dan Gadzuric at PF next to Bogut.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
30.0 mpg, .417/.000/.625, 7.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.5 bpg, 1.5 to, 3.0 pf

Mbah a Moute was the young player I was least concerned with coming into Vegas, as he already has a well-developed NBA skill (ie defending anyone).  I realize that begs the question of whether he can develop an offensive game to match his defensive wizardry, but I've generally assumed that he wasn't going to dramatically improve in that regard, and Vegas didn't provide much evidence to suggest otherwise. Getting Mbah a Moute involved didn't seem to be a big priority with the coaching staff, and so it wasn't surprising that he failed to stand out.

Mbah a Moute will always be limited by a lack of comfort handling the ball, though he's pretty shifty around the hoop, particularly in the way he uses pump fakes.  And while he hit a handful of jumpers in Vegas, it's obvious he's not yet a reliable shooter unless wide open.  I know that's been a point of emphasis in his work this summer, so hopefully it becomes more apparent in the preseason. But as John Hammond told me, he's really got a power forward's game offensively; In this case that says more about what Mbah a Moute can't do than what he can.

Largely by default, Mbah a Moute remains the obvious favorite for the starting small forward spot, but his lack of prototypical small forward offensive game could complicate the Bucks' plans somewhat.  My instinct is that he'll need to be paired with a PF who can shoot from deep (ie Ilyasova) to create proper floor-spacing, so I'll be curious to watch how Skiles ends up parsing out the minutes at the forward spots.