It’s no secret the Bucks’ bench has been important in guiding Milwaukee to the league’s best record. Mike Budenholzer even resurrected Pat Connaughton against the Pistons earlier this week and he casually dropped 16 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 22 minutes two days after a DNP, of which he’s had 14 in the last month and a half.
It seems like no matter who Bud puts on the court, they produce.
Not to be outshone Tuesday night though, D.J. Wilson continued his what-was-once-shocking-but-is-now-becoming-somehow-surprisingly-usual play with 9 points in 18 minutes and a +14 differential. Along with his 16 point, 5 rebound performance against the Raptors, D.J. has played in every game since Jan. 11 and is averaging 6.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per.
Before Christmas, no one would have imagined Wilson even seeing the floor, let alone him becoming a productive NBA player. We’re now six weeks into his run and it’s still relatively shocking.
He’s now averaging almost 18 minutes per game this season, shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from three. He’s also averaging a block a game the past 9 games, showing not only activity but *gasp* ability on the defensive end.
Reminder - D.J. played only 71 total minutes last season.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks were -54.4 when Wilson was on the floor in 2017-18. Small sample size to be sure, but that’s an awfully ugly number. This year, Milwaukee is +2.7 in 343 minutes when Wilson plays.
Horst’s other “selection” in the 2017 draft, Sterling Brown, has been a key cog in Milwaukee’s bench as well. (The Bucks’ second-round pick was actually South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, who was sent to the Clippers. Horst traded with the 76ers to acquire Brown).
I saw Brown in Oshkosh on Nov. 17 when he was playing for the Herd. I remember the date because it was wine glass giveaway night and also Giannis tried to discreetly make an appearance. It didn’t work. Anyway, Sterling was playing in the G-League two and a half months ago.
Fast forward to January and Brown has been the first guy off Milwaukee’s bench. The second- and third-most used lineups for the Bucks in January featured Brown, one simply with Sterling in Malcolm Brogdon’s spot alongside the starters, and the other along with - you guessed it - D.J. Wilson!
We’ll let that idea marinate for a moment while we delve deeper into Brown’s season in particular.
Sterling is averaging 15.9 minutes per game this season overall. But in the month of January, he played more than 20 minutes six times, including more than 28 minutes in a 111-101 win at Memphis on Jan. 16 in which he scored 11 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 4 assists and also had a steal and a block. #BenchProduction.
Sterling as the Bucks’ sixth man has been Milwaukee’s most-used lineup in January outside of the starting five.
Coach Bud has a deep track record of developing young wing players. We wondered on which Milwaukee wings he would have the biggest influence, and the answer is most definitely Sterling. This season, Brown has developed a prototypical Budenholzer shot profile - literally half of his shots have been threes, while 39 percent of his shots also come at the rim. He’s shooting 43 percent from deep, and 59 percent on corner threes.
Compare that to his rookie season, when a fifth of all Sterling’s shots were from the mid-range. Bud has taken Brown to school, quite literally. Brown’s effective field goal percentage is in the 91st percentile of all wing players this season.
Now back to that lineup - the one that features both Sterling and D.J. in for Brogdon and Giannis.
Despite playing just 27 minutes, that group was Bud’s third-most popular lineup in January - with Sterling and D.J. seeing more minutes together than any lineup that included any of Tony Snell, Ersan Ilyasova, Connaughton, or George Hill - and it featured a point differential of +30 according to Cleaning the Glass. Next to the starters (you know, when Giannis is on the floor), it was the most productive Bucks lineup.
The five of Eric Bledsoe, Brown, Khris Middleton, D.J., and Brook Lopez scored 142.9 points per 100 possessions with an effective field goal percentage of 71.1. The group can flat-out score.
To bring it all back, that lineup features Horst’s two 2017 draft selections slotted in between three starters. And it’s without Giannis, which is a fantastically crucial point; the league’s MVP (right?) is able to rest while the bench at least holds down the fort, and at times gives him more breathing room. You saw the value of that depth firsthand against the Raptors, when Giannis had to leave early in the fourth quarter with foul trouble.
Bud seemingly tinkers with his wing rotations every few months; maybe Connaughton’s game on Tuesday gives him some more run. Then again, maybe not, as the Toronto game was another DNP for him with Sterling back in his now-usual spot as the first guy off the bench.
As we’ve seen, Bud has faith in Brown. And, as evidenced, plenty of faith in Wilson too, making Milwaukee’s 2017 draft class a now, perhaps surprisingly, key part of the Bucks’ run toward a title.