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Who Might Make The Leap?

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Taking a look at the young guys potentially poised to up their game next year

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

“The Leap.” An oft-mentioned phrase that typically conjures up thoughts of a player finally turning their talent from potential to actualized. Generally it’s also discussed in rather lofty terms, meaning someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo went from entertaining oddity to must watch marvel. The Bucks roster seems relatively bereft of that level of leaper, but there are plenty who could at least take a hop this year.

The former statement is problematic to roster construction and been discussed ad nauseum, but it’s meaningful to examine which player may be primed to step up this year on a roster that remains relatively unchanged from the year prior. Projecting a player’s potential performance comes with numerous caveats, including injury, playing time, and the fact it’s probably a fruitless exercise. What is the offseason for though if not some semblance of fruitless prognostication, so here goes nothing. Note that I’ll be using 538’s CARMELO projection system as a primary tool simply because it’s a publicly available, somewhat reliable, and provides a well-rounded summation of statistics to examine. I’m choosing to discount Jabari Parker from this discussion solely due to his late return next year, and deflated expectations given he’ll be working his way back from injury.

Tony Snell

I’m not sure many people are projecting Tony Snell as any sort of “breakout” candidate, and most would probably be happy if he performed similarly to last year even with his pay bump to $11 million per year. CARMELO is not kind to the Bucks recently inked shooting guard, who’ve politely placed him in the “scrub” category. After vaulting to a 1.5 wins above replacement projection (WARP) last year from a 0.1 rating in 2015-16, they’re guessing he’ll dip back to a 0.8 level this upcoming year more in line with his career average. They also place his value at only a $4.5M player, as opposed to the $11M he’ll be earning.

For what it’s worth, CARMELO also projects Giannis to take a relatively steep dip in his WARP from how he performed last year, so re-orient your dubious meters as necessary. In Snell’s case though, I do think there’s some merit to worry whether last year was a blip. Yes, his mercurial standing in Chicago is never an easy way to get your sea legs in the NBA and Milwaukee provided a stability and confidence in Snell he seemed to lack from the baffling overlords in Chicago. However, his career high 40.6% 3-point percentage on nearly twice as many attempts as his other seasons feels ripe for a fallback. Even if he can hover around 37% though, he’ll still be a valued player, but I’m not so sure he’ll be valuable player at $11M.

I doubt Snell will ever become a threat off the dribble, his 12.2% usage rate ranked him in the bottom-10% of all guards in the league. He rarely drove the ball on his own, and lacks the ball handling skills to create separation for his own shot, having attempted only 0.7 pull-up shots last year per game. Snell is a catch and shoot man through and through, which is certainly valuable! The ability to space the floor and not need the ball is imperative for a Giannis-led offense. The question then lies in what opportunities for growth are still available for Tony Snell.

The most notable one stems from his defenseive performance, where his steal percentage remains hovering around a rather low 1.2%. Now, Snell was typically an on-ball defender last year, so he doesn’t have as many opportunities to roam and get steals within the Bucks scheme. However, he also projects more as a fundamental defender than one who’s going to wow you with pesky hands poking the ball away from people. His clutch poke away from Westbrook notwithstanding, Snell can match his man, but typically plays off just enough to try and prevent his defender from whirling past him. If he could even up his average steals per game to 1, rather than 0.7, that would go a long way towards helping Milwaukee get to their dangerous fast break more frequently.

His piddly 10.7% free throw percentage could be improved too, but like I said before, Milwaukee doesn’t really want and or need Snell to be the guy driving to the hoop. On some second units lacking Giannis when Middleton is struggling that would be handy, particularly with the absence of Beasley’s knack for teleporting himself to the rim. However, even if Snell just improved that steal rate a bit, I think that would qualify as enough of a hop for me.

That was a long-winded way of recognizing that my barometer for improvement in these players is barely reaching above the 0 degree mark in the thermometer. I’m rather resigned to the fact Snell will be about the player he was last year, which would be a win for this team, but I think he has more defensive potential to unlock.

Malcolm Brogdon

Malcolm Brogdon’s rookie year proceeded at a relatively level rate, and although by the end of the year he was making game-winning buckets, his consistency was there for most of the year. It’s hard to envision a whole lot of growth within Brogdon’s game, not just because he’s older, but because he was pretty darn good last year already. Rookies rarely play just below average let alone posting a +0.8 plus-minus last season, all while stealing a starting spot from the guy Milwaukee brought in to be their steadying, pesky hand at point. CARMELO reflects this sentiment too, keeping him at a 3.2 WARP next year versus 3.1 during his rookie year.

They aren’t expecting that number to fluctuate rapidly for the next several years either, and he’s slotted into their “average starter” category. That seems like a good summation. His most similar player is Steve Nash (Hmm...) and his second most similar player is Reggie Jackson (Sigh). I don’t think either of those are that realistic, Nash for obvious reasons and Jackson due to his penchant for pounding the ball. Brogdon can get into that habit at points though, and there were times last season where it would behoove him to get the ball to Giannis or Middleton on the wing rather than deflate the ball before pulling up for a midrange shot. Brogdon did average the most dribbles per touch (4.43) on the team outside of Gary Payton II. That’s not uncommon given he had point guard duties, but I think he could work more as an off-ball spacer and occasional creator, particularly if given the ball on a cut due to his spidey-sense passing beneath the hoop.

Brogdon is never likely to become a pull-up shooter from three with his open shots generally looking like they’re calibrated to make it just to the hoop, and no further. He doesn’t have a quick enough release nor the dribbling skills to create separation. His assist to turnover rate is already quite adequate, so I’d say his most acute ability to improve upon for a mini-leap would be his finishing at the rim. Those thunderous slams somewhat overshadowed what was a mediocre year for Brogdon in the land of giants.

Among guards, his 54.3% shooting percentage in the restricted area was near the lower third. Brogdon will never have the athleticism to get by guys, but his 3.7 attempts in that area ranked 30th in the league among guards. That’s a decent clip for a starting guard whose star teammate and preferred paint partner are almost constantly beneath the rim. Brogdon lacks explosion there, but his lengthy wingspan allows for some creative finishes (see: aforementioned dunks). He has enough power to body up defenders beneath the rim and finish through contact, but he needs to draw more fouls and get to the free throw line. His 19.8% free throw rate is just a bit above Delly’s 18.0%, and I think Brogdon has plenty of potential to draw more fouls, a potential boon given his 86.5% rate at the stripe.

Once again, Brogdon’s improvement feels more incremental than impressive, but touching up the rough edges of his game should only further cement the ludicrous value he remains while on his peanuts contract.

Thon Maker

Among these three, conventional wisdom says that Thon is most in line for that “hop.” He’s the youngest, his game is rawer than an egg and there were enough signs in the playoff series against Toronto that it felt like there was a solid foundation to build from. Granted, that was versus a single opponent, and if we learned anything from the Great Henson Playoff Pan Flash of 2015, it’s that one competent playoff series does not a competent player make. Expecting a leap next year feels lofty, and I’m fully primed for a more gradual evolution of Maker’s game, much along the same lines of Giannis, although he’ll never reach those heights. CARMELO tends to agree with that assessment, illustrating a gradual slope of improvement until he peaks around the ‘21 season with a 3.4 WARP. Recall that Brogdon is already at a 3.1, so they’re projecting his peak at average starter status.

The dearth of information on Thon means projecting out that far is silly, but this year should be telling about where he may be headed as a prospect. Giannis didn’t become world-destroyer in year two, but he did show enough evolution for us to consider further leaps a possibility. Thon has plenty to prove during a year when he should start from game one and his minutes tick up from his paltry 9.9/game. First and foremost, Thon’s rebounding ability must improve if he hopes to stick on the court. Thon ranked 83rd out of 101 centers last year in defensive rebounding rate at 16.7%. His initial summer league debut did little to quell fears he’ll be snapped like a twig under the basket. Giannis’ 22.6% rate can cover up some of those deficiencies, but Thon will undoubtedly need to get stronger and avoid leaping for unnecessary blocks. I have a feeling that won’t come to fruition this year.

However, Thon can have an impactful presence beneath the rim. His 52.7% field goal percentage allowed at the rim is middle of the pack among those who faced at least two field goal attempts per game there. Some guys near his slot include Karl-Anthony Towns, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and he even tied with his teammate Jabari Parker. Thon faced only 2.9 attempts at the rim though, so it’s difficult to place a whole lot of stock in that stat at this point. Going forward, one would hope he can get that number into the mid 40’s, around where Giannis is at (46.1%). They’ll need it too for Thon to pan out, particularly if his defensive rebounding woes continue. Of all the opportunities for growth, I think this is the most obvious place to show improvement for next year. His ability to switch onto guards is unique for his size too, and plays directly into the Bucks’ scheme.

His offensive game is still in the slow cooker, but his 3-point shooting ability should be expanded next year. Milwaukee ran plenty of pick-and-pops when Spencer Hawes entered the game, and there’s no reason Thon shouldn’t slurp up the long-haired bomber’s minutes and perform the same way. He shot 37.8% on 74 attempts last year, although he periodically went several games without splashing one home. He also shot just 49 free throws last year, so his 65.3% from there feels volatile enough to not say whether or not it’s a good mark of his shooting improving or getting worse. More than anything, the fact he can shoot the three should be utilized more by Milwaukee’s offense to clear out spacing for Giannis to reach the rim.

I suppose that last point, built off potential more than anything else, is what makes me optimistic Thon will make the largest improvement next year. Granted he’s starting from the bottom of the barrel, but the sheer potential and uniqueness for his position remains tantalizing if tapped into. Maybe next year isn’t the time. Maybe he splays around the court fouling everyone in sight and looking like a baby giraffe on caffeinated formula, but I think he’ll make a larger jump than Snell or Brogdon, mostly because, like many, I think they’ve reached their apex.

What say you? Who will take the biggest leap on this Bucks roster from last year? Let us know in the comments below.