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Crossroads 2017: Draft Signals Continuity for Bucks

With the selections of D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown, the Bucks are moving full-steam ahead

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Press Conference Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

With the NBA Draft now in the rearview mirror, the Milwaukee Bucks are moving towards the next milestone of this crucial summer. Newly-minted GM Jon Horst may have come into his role under less-than ideal circumstances, but all indications were (and still are) that he plans to continue following the blueprint laid out by his predecessor.

With the selection of D.J. Wilson in the first round and the temporary-panic-inducing acquisition of Sterling Brown in the second, the Bucks appear to be building a roster full of versatile players to surround one of the league’s most versatile (Giannis Antetokounmpo). Wilson, a perimeter-oriented tweener who may eventually shift to the center position, and Brown, a tough wing who is a prototypical 3 & D player, both offer a lot of flexibility on both ends of the floor. While they may not have as high of a ceiling as some other draftees from Thursday night, their ability to fit the profile of what the Bucks want to do is intriguing.

Wilson (a 6’10” PF who grew up as a 3 and could grow into a part-time 5) plays an outside-in game (career 36.9% 3PAr vs. career 19.7% FTr) that would make him a terrible fit as a top option, but an excellent fit as a role player. His career at Michigan was unremarkable, but his impressive skill set combined with his lower-than-expected usage rate (career 18.9%) bode well for his prospects as a second-unit scorer. He also graded out well as a finisher and based on the tape, seems to have a knack for jumping from defense into transition, and is fast enough to beat bigs in a footrace to the basket.

His tendency to use finesse over force is a major hurdle that could block his development into a legitimate NBA big man, as is his woeful rebounding performance (career TRB% of 11.2%), but the Bucks’ overall distaste for traditional positions might help mask those weaknesses.

If Wilson can avoid falling into the John Henson development plan (i.e. play in the NBA for years while maintaining a NCAA level of physical strength) and actually bulk up enough to play some 5, this pick would go from “solid” to “spectacular.” With Thon Maker’s demonstrated ability to stretch the floor on offense and close the gaps on defense, a stronger Wilson would effectively duplicate Milwaukee’s ability to play a rangy center with length and mobility, which would be a huge boost to their long-term rotational goals. But even if Wilson is never able to play center, his lateral quickness is still an asset to the Bucks’ switch-heavy defense, and will keep him on the floor to pull defenders out of the paint with his long-range proficiency (career 36.3% from three on 4.0 shots/game).

Brown (a 225 lb, 6’5” wing with a 6’9.5” wingspan) is exactly what you want from an off-ball wing. While his translation to the pros is an obvious unknown, Brown was heralded as one of the sleepers of the second round because of his sharp-nosed defense and sharpshooting from outside (career 45.1% from deep with a 3PAr of 36.3%). He demonstrated some rebounding ability and even some playmaking (career AST% of 15.6%, despite a shaky handle -- 18.9% career TOV%) at SMU, but like D.J. Wilson should never be asked to carry the load on offense.

As a second round pick with less of a burden to bear, Brown should be able to step into a well-defined role in the NBA, and with proper expectations it’s reasonable to predict success. On offense, his shot selection runs conservative, partly due to his struggles near the basket and partly due to his slower release. But picking your spots lets you pick only good spots, and Brown showed excellent judgement in doing so. As long as his shot stretches out to the NBA three-point line, Brown should provide spacing in spades.

Defense is where Brown has already earned a sterling reputation (I’m so sorry...) and may earn an early look on the court from Jason Kidd. With a low center of gravity, impressive length for a wing, and the mobility to defend everything from post-ups to ball screens, Brown has a lot to like on that end of the floor. From The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks:

Brown should be able to switch screens and guard three different positions at the NBA level. He’s the perfect fit for the positionless style of basketball that Jason Kidd likes to play.

While their on-court flexibility is a benefit worth celebrating, both Wilson and Brown also offer flexibility in other ways. Because of how well their skill-sets meet the Bucks’ needs, they could change the calculus Jon Horst and Jason Kidd will use for the new league year starting in July.

For his part, Wilson does not directly replicate anybody currently on the roster. However, he offers a few of the things that other Bucks provide, and his projected development could alter those teammates’ future with the franchise. Most obviously, Michael Beasley would appear to be a lock to sign elsewhere in free agency, because Wilson can provide some of his production for cheaper. Super Cool Beas is definitely a better scorer as of today, but his high-usage might be better left off the team in 2018. The two players might have different processes (Beasley is a natural scorer, whereas Wilson looks like he learned how to score), but the end result (anywhere between 7 and 12 ppg on high efficiency) is what the team needs, and if they can get it from Wilson instead of having to re-sign Beasley, so much the better.

Wilson also offers a small part of what the Bucks get out of Mirza Teletovic, Spencer Hawes, and Jabari Parker. He shoots less than Telly (but is more mobile), rebounds worse than Hawes (but is superior on offense), and isn’t nearly as explosive or polished as Jabari (even though a healthy Jabari is miles better overall on offense).

On the other hand, Sterling Brown is very much a call-back to what Tony Snell became in 2016. Tough defense and smart shooting is a popular recipe for a modern NBA wing, and Brown could be just as good at it as Snell is right now. Snell’s pending restricted free agency is simmering below the surface with Bucks fans, and the team could more easily decline to match any outlandish offers from other teams if Brown is able to step into Snell’s (limited) role.

Zooming out a bit, both Wilson and Brown have an obvious place on the roster, both with its current construction and how it might look after some changes this year, or even next summer. Part of that is how easy it is to fit with Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jabari, but an underrated part of that is how easily everyting fits into the existing framework left behind by John Hammond...and picked up by protegé Jon Horst.

The question then becomes this: is that a good thing? Is the path to success leaning further into “positionless basketball” and establishing a large core of players who are interchangeable in the lineup and seek matchup advantages against the opponent? However you felt about the Bucks’ pre-draft outlook will largely determine your opinion on that matter. But one thing is certain: the Bucks went into the draft looking for players that fit the mold, and they got them in D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown. The plan is unaltered, and only time will tell us if it was the right call.