BRANDON JENNINGS, PG
+ Quick lefty guard with scoring mentality. Improved outside shooter with high arc.
+ Can get to basket but has trouble finishing. Can push tempo. Weak right hand.
+ Quick but lacks size, strength. Gets deflections and rarely fouls. Will force shots.
Jennings had his best offensive season, improving his outside shot to the point that it was a real weapon. Jennings shot 33.2 percent on 3s and 38.7 percent on long 2s -- still not great, but good enough that the shots he created generally were useful ones. He created a lot too, averaging 21.6 points per 40 minutes with a decent true shooting percentage. It also helped that his league-worst at-the-rim shooting of the season before improved to 57.7 percent. Jennings did all this with the fifth-lowest turnover rate at his position, so his middling TS% seems more of an accomplishment in that context.
He still has his weaknesses, though. For one, he's not much of a passer, dishing just 6.3 assists per 40 minutes despite having the ball in his hands for most of the game. And he's still not comfortable going to the basket with his right hand, leading to a lot of missed opportunities. He ends up shooting a step-back J or a floater going that way rather than getting to the basket for layups or easy dimes.
Defensively, Jennings remains a bit inconsistent. The Bucks got absolutely plastered when he was on the court, giving up 10.8 points per 100 possessions more with Jennings playing, but I'm not sure how much of that is on him -- his other data wasn't bad, and the numbers from previous seasons suggest he's not terrible. (This also dovetails with the bizarre Beno Udrih data; see his comment for more.) Jennings is somewhat below average, perhaps, but not any worse than that -- he gets his hands on balls and rarely fouls. However, the addition of Monta Ellis magnifies his weaknesses guarding size and makes it harder to hide him from bad matchups. Both players need to step up their effort level to compensate.
MONTA ELLIS, SG
+ Lightning-quick, shoot-first, right-dominant guard who likes midrange jumper.
+ Quick hands on D but undersized with short arms and inconsistent effort.
+ Poor shot selection. Underrated post player versus small guards. Great in transition.
Ellis passed the ball more willingly and made me want to throw things less often, so there's that. He posted a career-high assist rate and ranked second among all shooting guards in pure point rating. However, he still shoots entirely too many jumpers, especially from midrange, and thus has become something of a poor man's Carmelo Anthony -- a high scorer but one with middling efficiency and little defensive value.
Ellis took 10 shots a game (!) from beyond 10 feet but made only 30.8 percent of his 3s and 38.7 percent of his long 2s; additionally, many of those were quick hoists early in the clock when higher-value alternatives could have been explored. He finds the open man now, rather than passing only as a last resort, but he still stops the ball too much and doesn't seem to understand that a contested 20-footer off the dribble is a bad idea if there's still 18 on the shot clock.
Defensively, it's a similar story -- Ellis wasn't as bad as he used to be, but he was by no means good. Synergy rated him near the bottom of shooting guards, and while his other numbers were solid in Golden State they were pretty bad in Milwaukee. Ellis has a size disadvantage and short arms, but he also over-gambles and under-tries.
The obvious solution for Ellis would be to use him as a sixth man, where he'd be pretty much ideal as a shot creator with the second unit and his defensive shortcomings would be less problematic. Alas, it appears his rep as a big star gets in the way of using him this way.
LUC RICHARD MBAH A MOUTE, SF
+ Long-armed, tough defensive player who can shut down wing scorers.
+ Good rebounder. Can score around basket but a very poor outside shooter.
+ Runs floor and plays with energy. Good teammate. Limited ball skills.
Mbah a Moute had a good offensive season by his modest standards, increasing his scoring output to a respectable 13.2 points per 40 minutes. He could have raised it even higher had he shot better than 64.1 percent from the line, as he had one of the better foul rates at his position.
Break it down, however, and the same problems lurk. He shot 66.7 percent in the basket area -- and 20.8 percent outside it. Ugh. This is a major problem because his ideal position otherwise would be the 3, where he is a massive defensive disruptor with his length, motor and lateral quickness.
Even as a 4, Mbah a Moute is a potent defensive force. Synergy rated him well above average and he had the eighth-best rate of steals at his position, while the Bucks gave up 3.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court. All this is entirely consistent with his data from previous seasons -- he's an ace at the 3, and a plus defender but not quite as strong at the 4.
Unfortunately, his offensive limitations make him a better fit at the 4 ... and yet the Bucks are so overloaded in the frontcourt it's hard to see how he plays unless it's at the 3. He's a good, valuable player, but one wonders where exactly he fits in this picture.
ERSAN ILYASOVA, PF
+ Pick-and-pop big man who can play physical and rebound. Will force shots.
+ Limited leaping ability. Doesn't block shots and a below-average finisher.
+ Can defend post but struggles to guard perimeter. Good foul shooter.
Fluke season or harbinger of what's to come? Ilyasova played dramatically better than anybody expected, taking over as a starter a third of the way through the season and posting some eye-popping box scores before cooling off toward the end.
Ilyasova's shooting stats certainly jump out -- he made 45.5 percent of his 3s and 39.7 percent of his long 2s -- but even more was all the chances he got himself at the basket. For a jump shooter, taking more than four field goal attempts a game at the rim is impressive. He pulled it off thanks to his offensive rebounding, off-ball movement and occasional show-and-go move. He also drew fouls at a strong clip for a jump shooter; between that and the 3s he had a good secondary percentage and ranked sixth at his position in true shooting percentage. All this came with a low cost in turnovers, although he still forces his jumper from time to time.
Ilyasova also blew up on the glass, including a 26-rebound game against New Jersey, and finished eighth at his position in rebound rate. The only weak point in his performance was at the defensive end, where he can still be a bit heavy-footed and seemed to slack off last season. Opposing power forwards feasted to an 18.2 PER against him according to 82games.com, and the Bucks gave up 4.9 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court.
He won't shoot 45.5 percent on 3s again -- he was in the low 30s each of his three previous seasons -- but actually the rest of Ilyasova's season looks fairly sustainable, and he's only 25. The biggest concern isn't whether he can sustain most of his statistical improvement from last season, but whether he can bring a bit more defense along with it.
SAMUEL DALEMBERT, C
+ Long, fleet center. Elite rebounder and shot-blocker. Not a post threat.
+ Solid midrange shooter. Runs floor well. Very poor ball handler.
+ Mobile defender but has bad instincts and constantly has hands down.
Dalembert is turning into an odd-year, even-year guy, narrowly missing out on his second Fluke Rule season in three years while providing unexpectedly solid production for Houston. As usual, the blocks and rebounds were the key -- he finished 11th among centers in rebound rate and seventh in blocks per minute, although he has the frustrating habit of virtually never putting his hands up to contest a shot that he can't block.
Another notable surprise was his career-best 79.6 percent mark from the line; along the same lines, he's become just good enough on his midrange shot to be a somewhat useful spot-up weapon. Dalembert made 37.8 percent of his long 2s last season; you don't want that to become the focal point, but with five on the shot clock you'll take it.
Dalembert still has poor instincts at both ends and will make head-scratching decisions, but his length and solid mobility make him an above-average defender overall. Synergy graded him that way, and the Rockets gave up 2.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Don't expect him to maintain last season's productivity at age 31, but he'll be a major upgrade in the middle from what Milwaukee had at the end of last season.
MIKE DUNLEAVY, SF
+ Heady, thin wing player with good handle for size. Takes lots of charges.
+ Poor athlete who has had knee problems. Struggles to defend quick wings.
+ Likes catch-and-shoot, but average shooter. Moves very well without ball.
The knees feel much better, thanks. Dunleavy's movement improved noticeably last season and he put together one of his best seasons overall at age 31. He made 39.9 percent of his 3s, which was impressive, but he also shot unusually well off the dribble and off his assorted off-ball cuts.
Dunleavy converted 44.4 percent of his long 2s and shot 67.2 percent in the basket area, resulting in the eighth-best 2-point shooting percentage among small forwards. He's still sneaky enough with the shot fakes to rank in the top third at his position in free throw rate too; between that and the 3s he ranked third at his position in TS%.
Dunleavy isn't speedy but has good handle and sees the floor well; as a result, both his assist and turnover numbers were above average for a 3 and he finished fifth at the position in pure point rating.
Defensively, Dunleavy also had renewed juice. He's not a gambler, finishing in the bottom 10 at his spot in both blocks and steals per minute, but opposing small forwards had just a 10.1 PER against him according to 82games.com and the Bucks gave up 5.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. While the Bucks monitored his matchups and rarely let him within hailing distance of an elite scorer, he has shown he can defend the 3 position competently.
The question now is whether he can provide an encore. At his age and with his history, a decline is certainly possible, but for one season at least the Bucks got a great return on investment with an inexpensive contract.
DREW GOODEN, PF
+ Quick big man who can rebound and score. Has declined as a finisher.
+ Awkward, line-drive release but a very good midrange shooter. Will force shots.
+ Mobile defender but makes mental errors. Quick leaper. Much-improved passer.
Never one to take a great interest in where his teammates might be, Gooden suddenly turned into a high-post passing savant last season, repeatedly getting assists off passes to cutters from his perch on the elbows and throwing in a sizzling 42.1 percent mark on 2-point jumpers outside 10 feet. One is tempted to call it a fluke except it's the third straight season he's shot at least 42 percent on long 2s.
Additionally, he was able to shoot a lot by moving to the center position once Andrew Bogut went out. With opposing 5s reluctant to challenge him, Gooden averaged better than a point every two minutes. The problems for him came closer to the basket -- he shot only 48.4 percent inside 10 feet, which is pathetic for a big man, and as a result he had a below-average TS% for his position.
Defensively, Gooden is stretched as a 4; playing him at center was pretty much suicidal, as he offered no interior resistance or basket protection at all. Milwaukee gave up 12.7 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court last season -- you read that correctly -- and opposing centers strafed him for an 18.7 PER according to 82games.com. At his more natural power forward position, where he's likely to play this season, he's a much more adequate defender.
Gooden wasn't technically a Fluke Rule player last season, but missed by only nine hundredths of a point and the same tenets apply: He's probably going to see a significant performance decline this season. For one, he's likely to be playing mostly power forward now that the Bucks have three other centers, and so he won't have such an advantage on offense. For another, he's unlikely to shoot quite so well on midrange jumpers again. Nonetheless, he's had a PER above the league average for four straight seasons, which makes him a very strong frontcourt reserve.
EKPE UDOH, PF
+ Lean, athletic shot-blocker who moves well defensively and can protect rim.
+ Has 15-foot range but very poor offensive instincts. No moves or handle.
+ Very poor rebounder for size. Needs to reduce fouls. Makes free throws.
Udoh can't rebound or score, but man, can he play defense. Synergy again rated him as one of the best defenders in the league, and his teams once again had a major defensive improvement with him on the court. Golden State gave up 10.7 points per 100 possessions less with him on the court, while in Milwaukee the change was 5.2 points.
Opposing centers racked up a decent player efficiency rating against Udoh, but that's because he was busy playing sheriff. He ranked fifth in blocks per minute among centers and in the top third in steals. He's both a capable pick-and-roll defender and a very strong rim protector, and despite his inexperience his defensive instincts are all on key. He's a bit undersized for a center and at age 25 he may not improve much from here, but defensive value alone makes him a very good backup. Fouls, however, remain a problem, as he had one every 7.4 minutes.
Udoh would be a starter if he could play offense, but he's pretty bad at this end. He can make open jumpers and hit 38.4 percent of his shots beyond 10 feet, but he just doesn't have the instincts or ball skills to get himself easy chances near the basket. He's a low-mistake player, at least, cutting his turnover rate sharply last season, and his 75.4 percent from the line was very good for a center.
Surprisingly, he's also a terrible rebounder. Udoh was the league's third-worst center in both defensive rebound rate and overall rebound rate. This is partly because of how often he's going for blocks, but regardless he'll have to do better.
BENO UDRIH, PG
+ Left-handed combo guard with outstanding midrange pull-up. Crafty finisher.
+ Has scorer's mentality. Struggles to defend quick guards.
+ Line-drive shot breaks down from long range. Rarely turns ball over
Udrih had some of the league's best defensive stats last season, a result that at first glance makes one mistrust the entire enterprise. He's never rated well before, but he also hadn't regularly played the 2 until last season, and perhaps he's better suited to it than we thought.
Last season Synergy rated him among the league's best defensive guards, opposing shooting guards had a meager 10.3 PER against him according to 82games.com, and the Bucks gave up a whopping 11.2 points per 100 possessions less with Udrih on the court. Even using more advanced techniques like regularized adjusted plus-minus, Udrih rated among the league's best guards.
Udrih likely benefits from his comparison points -- Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis won't be making the All-Defense squad anytime soon -- and overall I'd still take this result with an entire pillar of salt. Nonetheless, Udrih's defense bears watching this season.
Offensively, I subjectively thought he was better than his stats --Udrih provided the Bucks some of their best ball movement and ranked sixth in the NBA in pure point rating, but his 3-point shot abandoned him. Or rather, he abandoned the 3. Udrih made only 17 the entire season, dragging down his true shooting percentage. While he shot his usual stellar mark on long 2s -- 44.6 percent, if you're curious -- he drew few fouls and finished with the third-worst secondary percentage of any point guard. That blemish reduced his offensive impact, but he was still one of the better third guards in the league last season.
TOBIAS HARRIS, F
+ Scoring combo forward with good ball skills. Smart player who draws fouls.
+ Needs to lose baby fat and improve jump shot. Unselfish, hardworking player.
+ Not a great athlete. A tweener who must improve defense. Can score in post.
Harris showed potential as a scorer as a 19-year-old rookie; in his limited minutes he averaged 17.4 points per 40 minutes, drew scads of fouls and shot 68.1 percent in the basket area. He's not a great shooter, however, making six 3-pointers all season, so without the ball in his hands it's less clear how he can contribute.
Harris' best avenue to minutes on this roster is at the 3, where he can bully smaller defenders on post-ups, and he could end up being a go-to option for the second unit this season. If so, he'll need to cut his turnovers and share the rock a bit more -- typical rookie shortcomings.
Defensively, he's a tweener who needs to get better. He fouled too often for a wing player last season and mobility will never be his strong suit, but he has good size for a wing and he's an excellent rebounder. He's also big enough to serve as a 4 with small-ball units, where his scoring ability could prove difficult for opposing bigs to counteract. Alas, Milwaukee's surfeit of power forwards makes it unlikely he'd see much duty in that alignment this season.
LARRY SANDERS, C
+ Athletic big man who can run floor. Excellent shot-blocker. Can finish at rim.
+ Bad outside shooter who shoots jumpers anyway. Below-average rebounder.
+ Foul-prone defender who lacks strength. Has no post game or handle.
Sanders was a useful player last season because of his defensive mobility and shot-blocking, but it was quite an eventful season on defense. He was first among centers in both blocks and steals, an amazing accomplishment -- except that he was also first in fouls. Man, was he ever first. Given his thin frame and aggressive mindset, the fouling was especially prodigious: one every 4.83 minutes, by far the worst rate in the NBA among qualifying players (see chart). If left in the whole game, on average he would have fouled out early in the third quarter.
Most Fouls Per 40 Minutes, 2011-12
Player Team PF/40
Larry Sanders Mil 8.27
Greg Stiemsma Bos 7.52
Andris Biedrins GS 6.77
Lou Amundson Ind 6.64
Aaron Gray Tor 6.25
Min. 500 minutes
But he made an impact. Sanders was second in the NBA in blocks per minute, trailing only Serge Ibaka. Synergy rated him the best defender on the Bucks and among the best centers in basketball. And Milwaukee gave up a whopping 11.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court. If he can just figure out how not to foul on every other player, he could be an All-Defense candidate.
Actually, there's one other limitation: He can't play offense. Sanders isn't shy about shooting, but most of his shots don't go in. He shot 25.7 percent away from the basket area but took more than a third of his shots from there, including 32 from beyond 15 feet. Further evidence to dissuade him from shooting lies in his 47.4 percent mark from the line. There's simply no evidence that he should be taking jump shots, but he seems to fancy himself a pick-and-pop guy rather than a dive man who can flush dunks around the basket.
As a result, it's not clear where he fits in. Milwaukee has another big who does a lot of the same things with less collateral damage in Ekpe Udoh, and just traded for Sam Dalembert. Sanders can be an impact player in short minutes off the bench with his defense, and could be a nice trade pickup someplace else.
JOHN HENSON, PF
+ Very thin, long, athletic 4 who can block shots and rebound. Good finisher.
+ Needs strength. Iffy outside shooter. No post game. Offensive role unclear.
Henson had impressive shot-blocking rates at North Carolina, but it's not totally clear what else he brings to the table. Although he's long and can finish, he shot only 50 percent on 2s; although he has some makings of a midrange shot, he hit only 51 percent from the line. He had very solid ballhandling numbers and that usually projects, plus he could get more easy buckets on fast breaks and weakside cuts.
Nonetheless, he's likely to earn his money as a second-unit energizer in the short term. He lacks the muscle to guard burly post players and will have to use his superior length and leaping ability to offset that, and he'll have to improve as a shooter to establish an offensive role.
DORON LAMB, SG
+ Smooth, long-armed wing with deadly 3-point shot. Very solid ball handler.
+ Pathetic rebounder for size. Must add strength. B athlete at best.
Shooting specialists often make for great second-round picks, and I like Lamb the best of the specialists. He shot 46.6 percent and 48.6 percent on 3s in his two years at Kentucky, plus his ballhandling numbers were very strong -- he might be able to play point in a pinch.
Lamb may be a defensive liability because he's not much of an athlete. He blocked two shots in 1,249 minutes at Kentucky last season, had one of the worst rebound rates of any prospect, and shot only 48 percent on 2s. He also had, by far, the worst rate of steals of any perimeter prospect in the NCAA this year; in fact his was the worst of any player under 7 feet tall.
JOEL PRZYBILLA, C
+ Shot-blocking center who defends rim. Good rebounder at both ends.
+ Can't shoot or handle but will finish at rim. Has no post game or handle.
+ Knee woes have robbed athleticism. Lost quick lift that was defining skill.
Portland started Przybilla 19 times, several of them after the team had already committed to rebuilding, and Milwaukee signed him in the offseason after two other teams pursued him. Both these facts amazed me because, after two serious knee injuries, Przybilla is irrefutably done. The quick leaping that was his differentiating skill is completely gone; he can barely get up to dunk now.
It shows in his results in two seasons since the knee injuries hit -- he's had a PER in the sixes in both campaigns, and while he still rebounds well his offensive numbers have been absolutely atrocious. He's turned the ball over on more than a quarter of his possessions in three straight seasons -- a truly breathtaking rate -- and averaged only 4.9 points per 40 minutes in the past two. Similarly, the once-fearsome shot-blocker averaged only 1.4 blocks per 40 minutes last season.