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In Search of Salvation for Rashad Vaughn

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The Bucks’ youngster seemed to show defensive flashes last season, but looking for defensive potential within Vaughn’s rookie campaign proved...unsuccessful.

rashad vaughn Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I entered into this post with the best intentions, genuinely trying to find a silver lining within the landfill that was Rashad Vaughn’s rookie campaign. As the season went on, I felt like he flashed glimpses of defensive potential as a potential one-on-one defender and a future perimeter defensive cog in the Bucks machine. Below is a chronicling of my foray into one of the darkest corners of Bucks basketball.

Rashad Vaughn was an unequivocally poor basketball player last season. Indeed, his statistical ineptitude rivaled that of Johnny O’Bryant’s…underwhelming…rookie season. Still, despite his inability to hit three pointers reliably (29.3%), penetrate and kick-out, or score near the basket (34.1% at the rim), Vaughn saw surprisingly consistent minutes from Jason Kidd, appearing in 70 games and ultimately topping 1000 minutes. So how does a rookie shoot 30.5% from the field and not find himself rooted to the bench? Well, it’s no secret that the key to getting minutes from most coaches is consistent effort and solid defense, so it seemed logical to explore whether Kidd’s patience and my observation of Vaughn’s defensive tools were well-founded.

Although he’s blessed with just average length for a shooting guard (6’7” wingspan), Vaughn does appear to have the foot speed to hang with penetrating guards, a skill that could be extremely valuable for a club that is coming off a bottom-ten defensive season and just lost its most consistent two-way wing. With Khris Middleton, O.J. Mayo, and Jerryd Bayless missing time over the season’s final three weeks, Vaughn closed the season with seven blocks and 11 steals in his final eight games (the equivalent of 1.0 blocks and 1.6 steals/36 min), providing what appeared to be clear hints of his ability to move his feet, contest shots and generally make life somewhat difficult for opposing guards.

In theory, those are the kinds of tools which could be a major boost in Milwaukee. Too often last season, opposing guards sliced through the Bucks’ defense like a knife through whipped butter, creating a domino effect that led to easy looks both inside and out. Moreover, that lack of integrity at the point of attack was particularly problematic given Greg Monroe’s inability to erase mistakes at the rim. Not that an old-school rim protector is a requirement to play good defense: the Bucks did just fine with Zaza Pachulia in 14/15, and Boston excelled last season without a premier rim protector thanks in large part to their perimeter bulldog brigade of Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Replacing Bayless with Matthew Dellavedova is a good start for the Bucks, but if Vaughn were able to ascend into a more tenacious and intelligent team defender, his value would increase exponentially.

Individual Defensive Metrics

At first blush, Vaughn displays some of the quick-footed potential essential for elite perimeter defenders. Although he’s a step slow in getting his hand up to contest Brandon Knight below, there are tools to work with:

Same goes for this play against E’Twaun Moore. Moore certainly isn’t known for his deadly penetration, so allowing him access to the paint isn’t a great start, but Vaughn recovers well and gets a hand in his face to force a tough shot.

Despite these flashes, Vaughn’s advanced metric were mostly awful. Vaughn’s overall defensive field goal percentage allowed sat steady at 50%, meaning opponents generally shot 50% while Vaughn guarded them — about 6.4% better than their average field goal percentage, per NBA.com. The figures don’t get better when broken down by shot location; nowhere on the court did opponents shoot worse than their average field goal percentage while Vaughn guarded them. His three point defense was merely 1.6% worse than average, but 3-pointers are subject to randomness from year to year anyway, so that figure is a little less relevant than the 56.9% opponents shot on two pointers against him, which were 65% of the shots he faced. That 56.9% figure was nearly an 8.9% improvement from their average shooting percentage, per NBA.com. Yikes.

For comparison’s sake, here are the figures of some of his peers who faced around the same number of shot attempts per game while on the court:

Cameron Payne – players shot 2.2% better

Ray McCallum – 1.3% better

Anthony Morrow (notorious for his inability to get on the court due to defensive ineptitude) – 2.2% better

Professor Andre Miller – .2% better

Among all NBA players, Vaughn was the 38th worst player in terms of difference between FG% allowed and their actual shooting percentage, per NBA.com. Of the players worse than him on that list, only one appeared in more games than Vaughn…recently signed Buck Jason Terry. Overall, the Bucks were only slightly worse defensively with him on the court, though his -2.13 defensive RPM figure suggests he’s been a clear negative defender so far.

The pre- and post all-star break splits don’t provide a respite for Vaughn either. Post All-Star break, while facing 6.3 attempts per game (up from 3.8 pre All-Star break), he allowed opponents to shoot 11.6% better than their average FG%. So, let’s revel in the fleeting moments Vaughn looked decent guarding one-on-one, and move on to his potential role within the Bucks scheme.

Team Defense

After their stellar 2014-15 campaign, the Bucks’ defensive rating fell precipitously from the second to 22nd in the league at 105.7. Ergo, the on/off numbers involving Vaughn will all be relative to the Bucks’ porous defense. Looking through the Bucks’ 20 most-used lineups last year, all of whom played at least 30 minutes together, Vaughn appeared in four of those. The results are unseemly. The best defensive rating of that group comes in at 109.3, when Vaughn played with four nominal starters in Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Parker and Monroe. Strangely enough, three of the four still have positive net ratings due to prolific offensive ratings in admittedly small samples sizes. That’s something to build on offensively, but it does little to support the thesis of Vaughn providing any value on the defensive end. The only outlier is the cringeworthy lineup of Vaughn, Ennis, Copeland, Plumlee and O’Bryant, who sported a -21.5 net rating. Try to assemble a worse collection of talent on court at once for a team that wasn’t the 76ers last year.

Lineups are pretty noisy data though, with sample sizes people shouldn’t feel comfortable discerning absolutes from. However, examining some of Vaughn’s deficiencies last year as a help defender point to the fact he still has a long ways to go before fitting in as a key contributor.

His lack of strength, not uncommon for a rookie, hurts him when trying to chase shooters around screens. In the examples below, Bulls big men easily dispatch of Vaughn and free up their guards to take either a quick shot or start to whip the ball around for an eventual easy shot at the basket.

Vaughn also suffered from a lack of consistent effort and discipline within the Bucks’ scheme. Granted, it’s difficult to always know who is at fault without directly asking coaches, but the two examples below are fairly obvious. First, Vaughn fails to recognize Schröder isn’t a threat from beyond the arc, and sticks too close to his man instead of helping off and contesting what turns into an easy jumper for Kyle Korver.

Next, he puts nominal effort into preventing Pau Gasol from getting low-post position as Monroe rotates up to help on Butler. A tall task for a rookie, but simply setting his hands on Gasol won’t get it done.

His defensive rotations weren’t all bad though. He displayed a decent affinity for switching off the ball and following shooters around the court when he wasn’t disrupted by picks. He even flashed some recovery athleticism on this block of Cristiano Felicio…although it could’ve been prevented were he not a tick late rotating over to stop Felicio when he entered the paint.

Undeniably though, the results weren’t pretty. Predictably for a 19-year-old, Vaughn remained a defensive liability by all statistics, and he didn’t show quite the potential I envisioned when revisiting his tape. Those defensive shortcomings are particularly problematic given his struggles on the offensive end, though with Middleton out he’s likely to get a shot at extended minutes again this fall. Kidd’s patience may ultimately be rewarded, but Vaughn will have to improve exponentially in almost all aspects of his play if Wreck-It Rashad hopes to become a consistent NBA player.

Until then though, I think this serves as a pretty apt summation of his rookie season…

We’re very pleased to welcome Adam Paris to the Brew Hoop staff. He previously wrote about the Bucks at Babbling Bucks and can be found on Twitter @AdamRParis.