The Milwaukee Bucks may not be quite ready to join the Eastern Conference elite, but let's be clear: big things are expected of them over the next few seasons.
As a result, the status quo won't be good enough going forward; a roster full of young talent will have to convert its raw potential into real production at some point, and hopefully sooner rather than later. So who will be the Bucks' breakout star of the coming season? We each have our favorites, but a team with a half dozen "core" players 25 or younger provides plenty of options. So let's break down the guys who might be reasonable candidates to make major strides this season -- and let you vote for your pick at the end.
The Star Talents
Any discussion of "breakout" candidates begins with the two guys the Bucks most need to break out. It's not to say Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker have to become all-stars by February -- let's remember that we're still talking about a pair of 20-year-olds -- but it's still critical that they maintain the star-level trajectory that they both hinted at last season. At the end of the day, the Bucks' thesis for contention is riding on both attaining some degree of stardom; a lack of clear progress this season would deal a major blow to the franchise's long-term aspirations.
Giannis Antetokounmpo. I was somewhat surprised when Giannis nipped Jabari Parker in our "Most Valuable Asset" voting last fall, but since then he's given Bucks fans plenty of reason to believe. After an intriguing but statistically mediocre rookie campaign, Giannis improved in virtually every respect as a sophomore, officially graduating from fan favorite to franchise building block.
Granted, it's still not clear if he'll ever score at the volume required for superstardom, but don't let that distract from the fact that Giannis won't turn 21 until December -- and we're still unsure if there's anything he can't do. His long and increasingly filled-out frame should allow him to defend NBA power forwards and wings alike, and even his shaky perimeter shot looks ripe for major improvement. It's not much of a stretch to think he could put up 16 points and 8 rebounds per game on strong efficiency this season, numbers only slightly above the 14/7 line he averaged after the all-star break last spring. Demanding the ball and being more decisive with it would certainly help, as he'll need to see a healthy bump from in his 19.6% usage rate if he's going to become the player Bucks fans hope he can be.
Jabari Parker. Two decades after Glenn Robinson brought his jaw-dropping collegiate resume to Milwaukee, Jabari Parker landed with similarly high expectations last summer. And with good reason: not since Robinson have the Bucks had a player with Parker's natural scoring instincts, and it's easy to forget that Parker is also taller, younger and more explosive than the Big Dog was when he emerged as a 20-point-a-night scorer as a rookie in 1994.
Unlike Robinson however, Parker saw his rookie year short-circuited by a torn ACL, an injury that also threatens to limit his role early on this coming season as well. Add to that his reputation as a limited defender, and expectations have to be at least somewhat limited as to how much Parker can help win games in the short term. Still, Parker's offensive upside remains enormous, and it may only be a matter of time before he develops into an elite NBA scorer. No one on the Bucks can match Parker's pedigree, but will it fully emerge this coming season?
The Young Producers
Greg Monroe and Khris Middleton might well be the Bucks' two best players at the moment, a fact that makes it more difficult to proclaim them as true "breakout" candidates. After all, if you're already damn good, you have to get really, really good to qualify as a breakout, right?
Greg Monroe. Having just turned 25, Monroe is the elder statesmen of Milwaukee's young core -- hey, one of these guys can actually rent a car! -- and he'll be expected to live up to his wise old age after signing a three-year max deal this summer.
The exciting part for Bucks fans? Monroe was already a highly productive player over his five seasons in Detroit, but he's poised to put up even bigger numbers as a primary option playing his preferred center position. When he wasn't sharing the court last season with the lane-clogging Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, Monroe averaged an absurd 21.5 points and 14.1 rebounds per-36 on 59% true shooting, providing a sneak peek of what might be to come in Milwaukee. I'm not sure he's going to put up numbers that big in Milwaukee, but coming anywhere close would earn him some legit all-star buzz come next February.
Khris Middleton. While he might have the least sexy game of any Bucks' starter, there's a reason Middleton ranked higher than any other Bucks in SI's top 100 NBA rankings this summer (#45). Middleton is a lights-out shooter and versatile wing defender in a league that covets both of those skills, which is precisely why his new five-year, $70 million deal has been declared a relative bargain by most cap aficionados.
The question with Middleton has always been ceiling; he's not an outrageous athlete, nor has he ever shown the handle typically required to become an all-star caliber player. Those factors should prevent him from ever being a "real" #1 option, but it's encouraging to note that he didn't back down from an enhanced role after the Brandon Knight deal last spring, scoring a team-high 16.8 points on 55% true shooting and 39% from deep after the all-star break.
Depending on your point of view, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson are either ready to solidify themselves as high-quality NBA players, or mostly frustrating guys who are much closer to their potential than people would like to admit. Can one or both of them confirm their legitimacy as a core piece, or might one or both of them be out of the Bucks' plans by next summer?
Michael Carter-Williams. After a stat-stuffing rookie of the year campaign, the deck was in many ways stacked against MCW last season. Shoulder surgery prevented him from working on his shaky jumper over the summer, and when he did finally get healthy he found himself surrounded by a threadbare Sixers roster. He reacted by shooting too much and converting too little, and by February the Sixers were willing to ship him to Milwaukee in exchange for another future lottery pick. Dropped into a playoff race midseason, MCW then struggled in February and March but hit his stride in the season's final two weeks, averaging 16.9 points, 6.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 steals on 50.9% shooting in April.
The challenge for MCW now is figuring out not only how good he really is, but how to best use his talents in the modern NBA. Defensively there's not much to worry about, as MCW's size and athleticism make him an excellent fit for the Bucks' switching, havoc-inducing style. Offensively it's a much different story, as he'll need to become at least vaguely capable of punishing teams that leave him open from the perimeter and hopefully show marked improvement as a playmaker and finisher. While Jason Kidd reigned in his penchant for low-percentage jump shots, MCW was still an inefficient scorer who shot an uncomfortable amount for a "pass first" point guard, a trend that will likely need to reverse itself with Monroe on board and Giannis and Jabari needing more touches.
John Henson. While Giannis, MCW and Middleton struggled to find any consistency in their first playoff appearance, Henson surprised many by being the Bucks' most productive player in their opening round loss to the Bulls. After an up-and-down season that saw most of his numbers decline to career-low levels, Henson looked surprisingly frisky against a Chicago front line that's mostly dominated the Bucks in recent years, averaging nearly nine points, eight boards and two blocks per game.
If that's the guy who the Bucks will have going forward, then the talk of an $11-12 million per year extension aren't unreasonable even if Monroe's arrival guarantees him another year as a reserve. Rim-protecting young big men always seem to get paid, so a guy who just led the league in blocks per minute figures to be valuable and get paid, right? Perhaps, but Henson will also need to answer the skeptics who see a player that couldn't beat out Zaza Pachulia for a starting job (twice) and has seemingly regressed offensively in each of the past two years.