ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — It can be a tedious process, but the Milwaukee Bucks are slowly learning Larry Drew’s defense, a system entirely different to almost every one of them.
The majority of Milwaukee’s first week of training camp has been focused on installing the defense, and Drew feels things are coming along as expected for only having four days of practice.
“I thought guys did a good job really focusing on everything we put it,” Drew said. “It’s been a whole lot of teaching going on. They have their playbooks, and they are starting to pick it up. I think we’re in a good place after a week of practice.”
Drew spent the end of Friday’s practice going over different parts of the defense, covering things like pick-and-roll coverages and defending screens. The terminology is new in the defense and has numerous different calls, as colors and numbers are used to call out different things. The goal is to have each of the five players on the court reacting on a string when a different number or color is called.
“The defense from Scott Skiles’ system is totally different, but it’s not difficult,” Bucks center Larry Sanders said. “It’s habits that we have to break through the last system we’ve already learned. It’s coming along. Guys are catching on and getting it.”
One area where the Bucks expect to be better defensively is on the perimeter, mostly due to the addition of point guard Brandon Knight. There’s a commitment level necessary to play defense as a guard in the NBA, and Knight seems to have it.
Knight has the strength to fight through screens and has the potential to be a very good defender, something the Bucks haven’t had at the guard position in some time.
“I think he’s a terrific player,” Drew said of Knight. “He’s strong, and he can really defend. Boy, he gives us such a weapon on the floor because he’s a real defender. He wants to be good defensively. He’s had a good four days. He’s really done a good job, but he’s still learning. This kid is still 21 years old.”
Having a guard who can get through screens will allow the Bucks to do a variety of different things on defense. Knight takes pride in not being afraid to take a blow on a screen and even to deliver some himself.
“It’s something you learn,” Knight said. “A lot of young players when they get to the NBA die on a lot of screens because they aren’t used to guys stepping up and hitting them. It took time for me to get better at that but it’s something I know I’m good at now.
“A lot of it is mindset, but if you don’t have the right technique you are going to get hit by a screen. It’s a mindset along with technique and wanting to do it.”
The Bucks were able to get away a bit with lapses in perimeter defense because they have an elite shot blocker in Larry Sanders and a potentially impactful shot blocker in John Henson protecting the rim.
While he recognizes the impact rim protectors can have on a defense, Drew doesn’t want the Bucks to become reliant on Sanders saving a possession with a blocked shot.
“Both Larry and John Henson can erase a lot of defensive mistakes,” Drew said. “You screw up on the perimeter, they drive it to the basket, you have two fly swatters back there. But I don’t like to look at it as having a margin for error. We don’t want to put those guys in a position where they can pick up a foul.
“It’s nice to have that behind you, but we want to treat our perimeter defense as if there’s no help back there. If we defend with that mindset, we’ll do a much more efficient job than trying to keep the basketball in front of us.”
One major difference in Drew’s defense from the system Milwaukee ran in the past is the big men showing on screens and getting out to the perimeter. Sanders feels it’s something the athletic Bucks frontcourt can thrive doing.
“Our quickness, being able to show out on the screen and then being able to get back and affect the play is huge,” Sanders said. “We have a number of guys who can do that. It does help in our favor.
“We’re taking time to learn so it’s great. Coach has been great being patient with us understanding we are coming from a different system.”
Open practice: Ready or not, the Bucks are going public Saturday as they host a practice open to the public at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. There’s still a lot of teaching left to do, but the players are ready for a change of environment.
“We’re going to be ready as we can be in four days,” Knight said. “It’s going to be a little bit messy. Guys are just starting to get back to playing basketball and used to new sets. We’re going to go out and play hard to make the most of it.”
Drew canceled Friday’s second practice to give the team the night off after sensing some of guys needed some rest. Khris Middleton scrimmaged a bit Friday but was still limited with a sprained ankle and could be held out Saturday.
Reserve center Zaza Pachulia still isn’t participating in the contact portion of practice and won’t participate in the open scrimmage. Drew hinted a couple of other players may be limited Saturday.
“We have a couple of guys who are a little banged up,” Drew said. “I think it will do us more good to let some of these guys mend and get their legs back rather than bring them in here. I don’t think I’d get much accomplished there.”
Because of the time spent on defense, the Bucks haven’t done much work offensively just yet. Drew plans to gradually start putting things in offensively when he feels players are comfortable on the defensive end.
Drew admitted he’s done more teaching this week than he’s done his entire career, but he knew he’d spent a good chunk of October educating.
“We’ve put a lot of things in and I can tell these guys are doing a lot of thinking instead of reacting,” Drew said. “We’ll get to the point where they are just reacting to what we do, and they know exactly what we do.”
Getting revenge: After losing by double digits on Thursday, Milwaukee’s starting five returned the favor by defeating the reserves in Friday’s scrimmage, 33-27.
Henson completed a three-point play to pull the second unit within four and later hit a free throw to cut the deficit to three, but Ersan Ilyasova hit a 3-pointer with under a minute to play to ice the scrimmage.
“The energy and the camaraderie has been unbelievable,” Drew said. “These guys are talking, and they are really competing against one another. The first unit returned the favor today. They are playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulders. It was very, very competitive.”
Another number: Friday’s number of the day was 25, as in 25 assists per game. That’s a lofty goal for the Bucks but one Drew feels they can accomplish.
San Antonio led the NBA last season at 25.1 assists per game, and the Bucks sat ninth at 23.1 per game. While leading the league in a category seems like a significant jump, Milwaukee needs just two more assists per game to be one of the top passing teams in basketball.
“That’s the challenge I’m going to throw on them,” Drew said. “I don’t see why we can’t be a team like that with the shooters we have. We have big men who are very efficient around the basket. If we share the basketball there’s no reason we can’t reach that.”