Entering the workweek, the Bucks were in a rough spot as they dipped two games below .500 for the first time in four seasons. Some on-court adjustments (and maybe a visit with the Commander-in-Chief) appear to have really re-energized Milwaukee as they set out on a long road trip. Rotation players now able to handle their usual minute workload, Khris Middleton’s exit from the COVID protocols, and an easing schedule ahead all bode well for the upward climb in the East standings we all know is coming. This never was a matter of “if” but the “when” kept getting delayed due to key injuries. Though the roster may not fully be healthy as 2021 ends, the depth that Jon Horst assembled in the championship’s wake might be the main driver of any upcoming surge.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: A (last week: A+)
Sandwiched around two similar 12/26 performances were difficult nights against the Knicks, who had enough rim protection each game to keep Giannis out of the restricted area: he was just 4/7 there across both matchups. He took advantage of soft interiors in Washington and Philly to make his usual hay down low, but Giannis still struggled with his jumper even though those teams weren’t as successful at funneling his shots into the midrange as New York. This resulted in more inefficient shooting lines than we’re used to, with a couple of rougher nights at the free-throw line mixed in (he’s back under 70% on the year). Nevertheless, he had his usual all-around impact on games, averaging a massive 15.3 RPG plus plenty of assists, steals, and blocks.
Jrue Holiday: B (last week: injured)
It took three games for Holiday to find an offensive flow after returning from his lower extremity maladies, so I’m being a bit generous for someone we typically hold to high standards. Shooting is the main skill that escaped him this week; aside from 5 turnovers in 20 minutes last Friday—his first action in two weeks—he appears recovered enough to facilitate and play his typical brand of defense. Wednesday night has him trending upward.
Grayson Allen: A+ (last week: A-)
Donte who? I don’t think I’ve seen a better fit at shooting guard than Allen since Giannis arrived. While Allen’s skill set is not uncommon around the Association, the Bucks haven’t had a guard with such a confident quick trigger from deep, distance accuracy, and the ability to slash to the rim (which he could always stand to do more of) since.. prime Michael Redd? John Salmons? Malcolm Brogdon’s trigger wasn’t fast, but I digress. Allen is converting 41.9% of his triples on a whopping 8.8 attempts per game and was at 51.4% this week on 9.3 per game, good for 20.3 PPG. Playing with Giannis obviously suits him well and their already-great chemistry is still evolving. Like at Duke (which pains me to say as a Badger alum), he doesn’t shy away from the big moments either, hitting one of the biggest threes on the young season to ice the Sixers on Tuesday and a couple more the next night. I think it’s reasonable to think that this year, he’ll be recognized as one of the league’s most dangerous volume three-point snipers alongside names like Duncan Robinson, Joe Harris, and the Bogdanovics.
George Hill: B- (last week: A-)
I exhorted Hill’s overall solid work for an older reserve pushed into heavier minutes last week, but his play took a hit this week and I worry that this load on the heels of a short offseason is wearing on him. Due in part to some big shots like his three with just under 5 minutes remaining on Wednesday, the Bucks have been great with him on the floor (+32 in total this week) in spite of rough stat lines and a general appearance of being gassed at times. He’s been at 32 or 33 minutes in each of the last three games and with thin backcourt depth, this is just too much for a 35-year-old. As a defender, the fact that he may have lost a step isn’t the main problem, it’s his bulk. While Shake Milton has similar length and Tyrese Maxey is shorter, both have at least a dozen pounds on Hill: each routinely bodied Hill inside on Tuesday, so matching him onto stronger guards looks like a real weakness for the Bucks’ defense. I’m in favor of removing him from the starting lineup in favor of Pat Connaughton until Khris Middleton returns.
Bobby Portis: A- (last week: B-)
Future national leader Bobby POTUS (seriously, check out his fit from 1600 Pennsylvania and marvel at how much better he looks than 100% of politicians) now looks as good on the court as he does in his well-tailored suit off of it, and I love a well-tailored suit. His shot is falling from behind the arc again while he steadily regains his touch inside as those baby hooks and floaters start to fall. His personal rebounding numbers are great, but it’s no coincidence that the team’s success on the boards jumped after he joined a now-bigger starting lineup alongside Giannis, a decision likely based on last Friday’s debacle in New York. Much like Brook Lopez is famous for, those box-outs from the 5 have been key to Milwaukee’s success on the defensive glass since 2018, not just a boon to Giannis’ stats.
Pat Connaughton: A- (last week: B+)
Maybe a dark horse Sixth Man of the Year candidate (how’s that for a non-committal statement?), Connaughton shook off about two weeks of cold shooting in a huge way at MSG with a career night. Holding the flamethrower as the Bucks torched the Knicks from deep, the 7/13 three-point line bumped both this week’s and his season percentage closer to 38%. That number somehow seems low because of how critical his outside shooting has been to victories so far, even during games where he’s struggled like on Tuesday in Philly. His clutch (the score is within 5 points and under 5 minutes remain in regulation) numbers back it up: he’s 4/7 from three in those situations this year and this week that number was 3/4! Between him and Allen, you have to be confident in Milwaukee getting a triple when they really need it, like when the duo nailed three after three to put the Knicks away.
Semi Ojeleye: B+ (last week: C)
He’s here! After starting 0-for-the-season, Ojeleye is 6 for his last 7 from deep and now sports a 31.6% 3P% on the year. Three of those kept the Bucks in the game early as others struggled in Philly. More impressive was his success on the offensive glass this week, where he came down with a sensational 11 of the Bucks’ misses against 6 boards on the other end. There were doubts about his ability to not only remain in the rotation after his rough start (even when considering the lack of prep due to injury) but maybe even to remain in the NBA since in spite of his great lateral movement, he wasn’t enough of a plus on defense to justify the roughness elsewhere. He’s clearly bought himself more minutes with his recent play, but it’s possible (probable?) that this is his ceiling.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo: D (last week: C+)
Rightfully, the elder Antetokounmpo playing time ticked down to zero over the week as Holiday’s and Portis’ minute restrictions gradually ended. It seems that these last few weeks Thanasis filled a role best suited for Ojeleye, who can shoot to some extent and play defense without fouling, though Thanasis has cut down on personals lately. In his last start a week ago, he gave the Bucks very little in 18 minutes as the team struggled to hold its lead.
Jordan Nwora: C+ (last week: B+)
Nwora may have hit somewhat of a wall this week, unable to make much of an offensive impact or create many good looks. Nothing surprising about this inconsistency from a second-year player, and he’s still contributed in other areas from time to time, but his minutes are dwindling as the frontcourt gets healthier. Once Lopez fully returns, either he or Ojeleye will probably see little to no minutes depending on matchups and recent play. Nwora might just have fallen behind Ojeleye in that pecking order this week.
Rodney Hood: C- (last week: B)
He justifiably had two DNP-CDs this week but is at least hitting one of his triples each time he plays, no matter how few the minutes. As underwhelming as he is, I’d actually like to see more of him in the short term, though merely out of necessity and not on his own merits.
Justin Robinson: D (last week: A)
Still with the club even as the G League season begins, Robinson actually had his first DNP all season on Wednesday. He was neither a positive nor a negative this week until Tuesday when he was a very visible -12 in 11 minutes. Though it’s not his fault that he’s placed in situations where leads are evaporating like during the end of the third quarter in that game, it’s often beyond his capability to help his team hold onto games. Even on defense, where his skills are strongest.
Mike Budenholzer: (last week: B+)
I think Bud’s rotation decisions were largely inscrutable before this week given the injury problems, but with quality players returning to full minute loads I have a few bones to pick. While I understand that Hood has not given them much so far and he’s not yet found (or may not find again) his shooting stroke, Hill should not be seeing so much court time now that Holiday is back. I’d prefer he allocate a good ten of those minutes to Hood, who will be less consequential to the team than Hill come playoff time. Robinson wasn’t being used as a ballhandler this week in actual rotation minutes, so I don’t know what his purpose is when the best you can say about his play is that it’s not always hurting the team. Hood may not help much more, but I have much more faith in an established NBA vet to do something over a two-way. Late in games, Bud pulled the right strings generally, though I think he stuck with Hill a little too long at the end of the Sixers game. I was worried Allen wouldn’t return at all after exiting with about 4 minutes left but I don’t think it was for rest, as Hill played the entire last 6:21. They’re not giving up too much defense in the backcourt using Hill over Allen, especially against those physical Philly guards. At least we did get to see Hill steal Andre Drummond’s cookies when he snatched away a rebound over the big man’s head. Bud did at least make a good call by adding Portis to the starting lineup over Thanasis and in what might be a first for the Bud era, trotted out a somewhat effective zone to close out a win on Wednesday.
Incomplete: Sandro Mamukelashvili (DNP), Georgios Kalaitzakis (DNP), Khris Middleton (injured), Brook Lopez (injured), Donte DiVincenzo (injured)
The Bucks will get two scuffling Eastern Conference rivals as they look to notch a winning road trip before returning home to face an appetizing stretch of bottom feeders—afterfter the Lakers. These will be low-pressure games for Middleton to round back into game form and who knows, maybe we’ll finally get an update on Lopez, who I’m worried about more and more. What are your grades? Let us know in the comments below.