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Three B’s: Sterling Brown

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Incremental growth led to a season that also saw Brown bump his head on the ceiling in the playoffs

Eastern Conference Finals - Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Following a freshman season in which Sterling Brown flashed plenty of defensive tenacity, the hope was that a healthy dose of Mike Budenholzer’s vitamins might unlock him in his sophomore campaign. The front office should be pleased seeing another solid second round pick rounding into form despite a wrist injury that waylaid Brown partway through the season. While he battled back for minutes, it was promising to see Brown play his best as the season wound down, rather than get discouraged by the likes of Donte DiVincenzo or Pat Connaughton getting early season minutes before him.

Eventually, he become a staple of Bud’s rotation, filling in admirably for Malcolm Brogdon down the stretch. Offensively, his effective field goal percentage ticked up to a respectable 56.5% (88th percentile among wings per Cleaning The Glass) from 48.9% his rookie season. He halved his percentage of midrange shots and reallocated those to attempts at the rim. His rim-finishing took an impressive leap too, vaulting from a putrid 46% to 59% on double the attempts. I characterized that as a potential prominent source of improvement, and he delivered. Let’s get into the rest of his season through the lens of our typical Three B’s criteria.

Brown’s Boon: Defensive Versatility

Sterling Brown may not be the biggest guy around (although he can’t seem to shed that baby weight...), but you wouldn’t know it based on how he approaches his defensive assignments. At 6’6”, he can slide up or down some positions, although he’s better bodying up against wings than trying to slip around the floor chasing cat-quick guards. However, he showed in the thrilling April 4 Philadelphia game he was willing and able to guard larger players in Tobias Harris and Mike Scott. Even if he may not get back for the block, propelling yourself around a pillar like Joel Embiid is no small feat. On top of that, he anticipates the action and contorts his body a bit to ensure he’s not hung up and can recover to Harris quicker and help Lopez out.

Philly is weird for anyone to guard, but not every team has a player capable of matching up size-wise with a player like Harris who’s a passable pick-and-roll operator. Here’s a smaller example that illustrates his defensive smarts. Knowing Stanley Johnson, his man, is a brickfest from deep, he digs in far into the lane to help on Blake Griffin, applying just enough pressure and getting his hands up just in time to force an errant pass that the Bucks are able to recover.

Brown will likely always be limited offensively, but he slots in perfectly as a guard capable of shifting positions defensively in a way the Bucks other guards, sans perhaps Wesley Matthews pending what his fuel tank reads, can. He gives them a little depth and understood how to play within Bud’s principled scheme. He’s a lower-rate 3-and-D guy, but at the very least he shows competency at both of those skills. It seems like too often the “D” part of that equation gets ignored for players earning that moniker. That’s certainly not the case for Burly Brown.

Brown’s Bane: Offensive Ceiling

Sterling has carved out a niche for himself on the offensive end: nailing triples. That’s about all Milwaukee probably should ask him to do. However, the Bucks just saw that type of player get relatively neutralized against a gaggle of swan-diving Raptors players capable of some off-the-dribble ability. Can Brown turn into what Norman Powell just was during the Playoffs? That seems like a best case scenario at this point given the fact he was essentially unplayable in limited minutes for rounds two and three. The Bucks gave him plenty of ballhandling duties in Summer League, along with the Atlanta Hawks throwaway game the Bucks nearly won with their end-of-bench crew. The results are mixed at best, and borderline horrendous this year, but he’s flashed some occasional passing chops.

By year’s end, he shot 36.1% from deep, but was a sniper from the corners, nailing 51.1% of his shots in the regular season on an admittedly minor one attempt per game. I’d expect a little regression in that regard this next season. It could even out with some progression to the mean on above-the-break triples though, as he hit just 27.6% of those. With his improved rim-finishing, one would hope he’s able to capitalize on those opportunities, but he doesn’t have a supremely tight handle nor anything more than a wrecking ball mentality when he gets to the tin for a shot. His vision isn’t supreme. Can he evolve any further? Some might argue it’s not necessary, but I’m not so sure given the hodge podge of talents making up Milwaukee’s shooting guard rotation now.

Does Brown Belong?

Like a lot of guys on Milwaukee’s roster, Brown passes the “any team could use a player like him” test. Against the Pistons in round one, he looked like a fella on the rise, showing some passing and playmaking chops. In round two, when he looked overmatched on the court, it seemed like that instructed us far more about the round one opponent than Brown himself. Nobody on Milwaukee’s roster brings together the exact fleet of skills that Malcolm Brogdon did. Horst knew that when he opted to let him go this offseason. Brown will be one of the players tasked with Voltronning a Brogdon replacement this season. Brown belongs, particularly on his low-rate contract, but I could also see a reality in which he gets shipped out as a trade piece to avoid having to pay his next contract in what’s set up to be a free agency with decent cap space, but a dearth of vaunted talent. Warning - overpays coming.

It’s tough to gauge his market right now, but I’d say he could at least net what Rodney McGruder just got (3-years, 15M). If he did, I think I could live with that, but I may be underselling the market next summer. There’s no question he belongs with Milwaukee’s squad, but the question from here on out isn’t necessarily, “Does he belong?” so much as “Does he belong as a contributor for a championship team?” I’m not sure we have that answer yet. This season will be instructive in that regard, but one thing we do know: he makes one damn intimidating cheerleader on the bench.