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Bogut reaffirming status among NBA's elite defenders

Five years ago it wouldn't have been a stretch to predict that Andrew Bogut would one day rank among the best centers in basketball. After all, you don't draft anyone first overall without the expectation that they'll one day stack up among the best at their position. But while Bogut's status as the Bucks' best player was perhaps predictable, how he's managed to do it is rather surprising given who he was supposed to be.

Remember, the Andrew Bogut of 2005 was a skilled scorer and passer who had a developing jumper (seriously!) and generally made his hay on the offensive end. The defensive part of the equation? As Chad Ford observed before the draft in 2005, scouts weren't quite as sold in that department :"Whether he has enough athleticism to guard NBA fives remains to be seen."

And yet five years later we are seeing Bogut cement his status as one of the league's best defenders, shrugging off a sore arm and an achy back to anchor one of the NBA's most effective defenses for the second straight season. On the heels of his seven block night against the Spurs, Bogut continues to lead the league in shot-blocking at 3.1 bpg and has now rejected two or more shots in ten consecutive games. Not that this is an altogether new phenomenon--Bogut was second in blocks per game last year, too (2.54 bpg) as the Bucks ranked second in defensive efficiency. But those stats are just part of the unique picture of Bogut the evolving star.

Overall, it's not just the number of shots Bogut blocks, but also how and where he blocks them. Analyzing the data of the NBA's top 25 shot-blockers between 2007 and 2010, Albert Lyu found that Bogut had the highest value blocks in terms of expected points prevented. It's a pretty cool analysis where Lyu looked at the expected points scored on shots from every location on the court and then overlaid that against the location of each players' blocks. Also important in estimating the true value of a block is what happens after the block--deflecting it to a teammate is much more valuable than blasting the ball into the fourth row, which is precisely why John Huizinga determined that Tim Duncan's blocks were twice as valuable as Dwight Howard's. Bogut was above average in that department last year, improving notably from the previous season, but that's to be expected from a guy who brings a coach's savvy onto the court each night. Indeed, all seven of Bogut's blocks against the Spurs stayed inbounds, and all seven of them were retrieved by the Bucks. Not bad for a guy who still takes plenty of charges, too. 

But perhaps more important is his rebounding, something that the scouts did see coming. Bogut's 12.0 rpg (6th in the NBA) and 19.4% rebound rate thus far are both career-bests and have the Bucks ranked first in the NBA in defensive rebound rate, a year after they ranked second in the category. The Bucks are also in the top ten in fg% allowed at the rim and allow the fewest shots/game inside 10 feet--a pretty good game plan for keeping the other team from putting up points. Overall, Bogut's ability to erase shots and grab misses has once again been the central pillar of the Bucks' defensive efficiency, which has kept them afloat in the standings as their offense continues to misfire. And as we've noted on a number of occasions, it's not just as a help defender where Bogut is excelling. Opposing centers have posted a miserable 37% eFG and 6.9 PER against him so far this season, while Synergy's database ranks him sixth in the league among all player in points per play allowed at just 0.66 PPP.

Now if only the offense came around...

Like the rest of his teammates, the downside for Bogut has been offensively, which I suppose is rather ironic when you re-read all those long-lost scouting reports. Bogut's arm injury no doubt played a role in limiting his effectiveness early on, and he's still posting a career-low 51.5% true shooting and 46% from the line. But part of that also stems from Bogut's inherent limitations as a go-to guy. Though he has a crafty face up game, particularly going to his left, his lack of a jump shot means he's not scoring unless he catches the ball near the paint. The numbers don't lie: Bogut's made just 2/13 shots outside 10 feet all season, which underscores both his limitations and his refreshing awareness of them. 

That shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the Bucks' occasional tendency for forgetting about Bogut, but I'd posit that keeping Bogut involved requires more than just throwing him the ball on his preferred right block.  For one he hasn't been particularly effective in the post thus far, scoring just 0.74 PPP, and it's also easier to double and take him out of the game with his back to the basket. Running P&R works well when it's there (1.05 PPP), but the Bucks haven't been able to get him many touches that way--just 17 shots all season. 

In the end it's a two-way street. It's important Brandon Jennings and company continue to make an effort to find Bogut, but he also needs to stay active off the ball--something we've been seeing more of over the past couple weeks. Bogut has also said his elbow is coming around, and it shows in his more consistent scoring since returning from his back injury: 19.8 ppg on 56% shooting over the past six games. I'm skeptical that Bogut can sustain something in the 18-20 ppg range over a full season--we've seen it for short stretches over the past five seasons, but never for more than a month or so--but the Bucks have never needed that kind of production more than now. Despite their improved ability to draw fouls and crash the offensive boards, Milwaukee continues to rank dead last in offensive efficiency and eFG%.

Either way, the good news is that Bogut doesn't need to be scoring at a prolific rate to help the Bucks win. Even factoring in his offensive struggles early on, I'd peg Bogut as an all-star if he maintains his current level of play, with Joakim Noah's latest injury helping his chances as well. And after finishing behind Howard, Duncan, Varejao and Camby in all-defensive team voting last spring, Bogut will hopefully merit more serious consideration now that he's showing he wasn't a one-year defensive wonder. Not that anyone in Milwaukee will be holding their breath for national recognition...but it would be nice, wouldn't it?