ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — There may not be another team in the NBA that values depth and its bench more than the Milwaukee Bucks, especially after they’ve danced with shallow depth charts for the past few seasons. That appreciation undoubtedly came after last season, when an injury to the oft-injured Andrew Bogut left the Bucks without anyone to truly fill his center role.
Without the benefit of battle-tested depth, the Bucks’ big man situation ended up crippling them down the stretch, as they fell short of the playoffs. Recognizing the problem, Bucks general manager John Hammond made sure to add depth in the frontcourt. A lot of it.
Now, nearly half the team’s roster space is taken up by big men, and as a result, the Bucks’ preseason scrimmages have looked decidedly more competitive. And with the reserves keeping things close early on, the team’s starting big men are starting to see the difference.
“We are much longer than we are last year, and we’ve got more athletic guys,” forward Ersan Ilyasova said Saturday. “It was troubling last year because we gave up a lot of second-shot opportunities. … Drew (Gooden) had to play in the five spot and it was hard guarding guys like Dwight Howard sometimes. … Now, we’ve got Sam (Dalembert) and Joel (Przybilla) will be under the rim to support us. We have a lot of guys that can be on the floor and produce.”
And with so many guys on the floor to produce, Bucks coach Scott Skiles has spoken positively about a number of Milwaukee’s new and old bench players. Ekpe Udoh has shown improvement on defense. Larry Sanders has shown improvement in his pace. And newly signed backup center Joel Przybilla has even drawn compliments from Skiles.
That optimism aside, Skiles isn’t ready to declare his bench and general depth a positive improvement just yet.
“That’s always hard to say because you don’t know,” Skiles said. “We certainly feel like we’ve improved our team, but injuries, you never know what’s going to happen. You could be a very deep team or all of a sudden, three days go by, and you’re depleted. That’s how the league works.” Jennings taking a step forward?: Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings has always had an affinity for offense. He’s been a human highlight reel at times in his three seasons with the Bucks.
But defensively, Jennings took a step backwards last season, according to Skiles. He had trouble dealing with some of the top-flight point guards that populate the Eastern Conference. And in order for him to take a step forward in 2012, improving his defense will be on the top of his priority list, Jennings said. His coach agrees.
“He’s got to compete and keep his man in front of him,” Skiles said. “On our team defensive things, he’s always been pretty good. It’s just a matter of kind of competing. … Obviously, every night, he’s got a pretty tough cover. There’s some of the best players in the game at his position. If you want to be known as one of the best players in the game, you’ve got to out-compete those guys. That’s just the way it is.”
So far in training camp, Jennings has shown that drive to improve defensively, and it’s something that has Skiles speaking very positively about his young point guard — a player he hasn’t been afraid to constructively criticize in the past.
“Brandon has been good so far defensively,” Skiles said. “He’s working hard at it. He’s been in tune and trying to improve in that area. We’ve been pleased.”
The extra guys: With guys like former Wisconsin wing Alando Tucker, Orien Greene, Eddie Gill, and Mustapha Farrakhan invited to Bucks training camp and hopefully looking for an opportunity, Skiles said on Saturday that he won’t be making any specific cuts soon.
He’ll save any cuts until at least after the team’s first Tuesday preseason opener against Cleveland.
“Really, everybody so far has done something,” Skiles said. “Everybody’s been pretty positive. It’s a tough spot for those guys obviously. We generally like, no matter anyone does … to keep most of the guys, if not all of them into the first game. We feel like if a guy’s going to come to your camp and play hard for you … we like to keep them and see what happens.”