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NBA Rookie Week: Rashad Vaughn could eventually flourish alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton

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Listeners of the Brew Hoop podcast know that -- for better and often worse -- I am rarely at a loss for words. Want a sprawling 10-minute soliloquy on the cosmic implications of starting O.J. Mayo at point guard? Perhaps a few thousand words on the mechanics of the Bucks' cap situation? I'm your guy. And yet when faced with the task of writing about SB Nation's Rookie Week, I found myself at a bit of a loss.

While I expected that bit of snark to be met with some annoyance -- no one likes  pessimism around a 19-year-old kid, right? -- the responses painted a pretty telling portrait of what Vaughn has done (read: not much) and what he might do in the future.

Admittedly, my impression of the 19-year-old former UNLV sharpshooter didn't get off to a great start; I was openly underwhelmed with the Bucks' decision to draft Vaughn at number 17 last June, especially with the likes of Bobby Portis, Kevon Looney and even R.J. Hunter on the board. Despite his scoring pedigree and good size, Vaughn seemed largely incapable of getting to the rim at UNLV, had already suffered two non-trivial knee injuries, and seemed mostly interested in hitting tough pull-up jumpers.

But whatever. Whether Vaughn was the right choice in hindsight is irrelevant to the bigger question of what he can do for the Bucks going forward, and we shouldn't mistake the draft for a deterministic endeavor. While Vaughn has done next to nothing since putting together solid performances in Vegas and the first couple weeks of the preseason, only Portis has really shown hints of potentially crawling out of the primordial ooze otherwise known as the latter half of the 2015 draft.

Still, any conversation about Vaughn remains largely an extrapolation from zero, and that's what's so hard about trying to project what he will or won't become. Virtually all rookies struggle to be a positive contributors, but the problematic thing with Vaughn is that he's been bad by even rookie standards. Consider:

  • Vaughn ranks 439th out of 446 players in ESPN's real plus-minus (-5.85 points/100 possessions), mostly because of his 441st ranked offensive RPM  (-3.87). Interestingly neither of those marks is the worst on the Bucks -- that dishonor goes to Johnny O'Bryant. Considering he's shooting a vaguely respectable 31.2% from three, doesn't really force shots and teams already account for him on the perimeter, you'd think he could serve some purpose as a floor spacer, but so far it hasn't panned out.
  • Only two rookies in NBA history have played more than 600 minutes and registered a worse player efficiency rating than Vaughn (4.1) -- both of them before 1970. Moreover, only eight rookies in NBA history have played that many minutes while recording a PER below 5.0. Among this year's rookies with 200+ minutes, he ranks last in PER, box score plus-minus (-6.4), free throw rate, and two-point field goal percentage (29.9%!). He also ranks 38th out of 39 rookies in two pointers made per 36 minutes (1.8).

Anyway, you get the idea. While all statistics have limitations, it's difficult to argue Vaughn was remotely ready to contribute this season, and his relative youth only explains so much (check what Devin Booker is doing in Phoenix). Still, Vaughn is hardly without hope, especially on a Bucks team that seems uniquely well-suited to leveraging his skills while mitigating his weaknesses going forward. Going into the season, Vaughn's limitations as a ballhandler made it difficult to ever imagine him carving out a starting role with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker around to man the two through four spots, though it was a fun thought experiment when our friend Mike Gartland raised it in the fall. But the emergence of Antetokounmpo and Middleton as the Bucks' offensive quarterbacks might just change that.

Though he's a long way from being anyone's idea of a stopper, Vaughn has good size and quick feet on the defensive end, and with seasoning it's certainly possible that he could defend both guard spots in time. No one's expecting the next Avery Bradley, but the Celtics' defensive ace would be an obvious role model for Vaughn to study this summer, especially from a physicality standpoint. While Vaughn's frame is perfectly fine by shooting guard standards and bigger than the vast majority of point guards, he remains a finesse player who still seems to avoid contact on both ends.

On the upside, his effortless, high-arcing jumper seems likely to develop into an above-average NBA weapon, and one that with the right supporting cast can paper over his shortcomings as a ballhandler, passer and finisher. While Vaughn may never be the next Bradley Beal, players like Gary Harris (the only other recent member of the sub-5.0 rookie club) and Allen Crabbe provide examples of players who went from clueless rookies to useful rotation shooters in the course of their first two seasons, so there's some reason for optimism. If those things happen, we could see Vaughn begin to inherit the minutes O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless are currently seeing as the designated shooter in lineups with the Big Three. He's already seen regular burn thanks to injuries to Mayo, Bayless, Greivis Vasquez and Michael Carter-Williams, and you'd expect that continue with MCW now out for the season and Vasquez yet to return from ankle surgery. The four-man lineup of Vaughn, Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Parker has only played 21 minutes together this season, though their 116.3 offensive rating and +14 net rating suggests something could be there already. With the Bucks out of the playoff picture, it's an option Jason Kidd may give another look over the final month of the season -- and one that we could see with much more regularity in the coming years.