ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — The Bucks’ second draft workout revealed one very obvious truth about what kind of player Milwaukee covets with the No. 12 pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
He’s likely to be big. Very big.
With the Bucks spending all but 12 games last season without a true center and having traded former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut to Golden State, Milwaukee played with a less than stellar committee at the five spot. Players and coaches frequently noticed the Bucks were shorter than almost every team they lined up against.
So, on Thursday, the Bucks made their draft intentions clear by working out three big men — Illinois’ Meyers Leonard, North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller and Syracuse’s Fab Melo — who are likely to go somewhere in the middle of the first round. Three other players — Terrell Stoglin of Maryland, Nick Barbour of High Point and Kyle O’Quinn of Norfolk State — were also on hand, but they are late-draft options at best.
Bucks director of scouting Billy McKinney echoed the same message the key invitees did: Milwaukee needs a big man, and the opportunity is most definitely there for one of these players to fill that void.
“Given our lineup right now, you always want to look at a guy at No. 12 who can come in and play a little bit,” McKinney said. “The opportunity for them to play is here in terms of us requiring a natural center. Drew Gooden did a fabulous job playing the center position, and the other guys filling in as not traditional centers did a great job. If we can get a guy at 12 that can come in and fill some moments in as a center, that would be great.”
Size wouldn’t likely be a problem, as all players top seven feet, heights that would make any of them the tallest player on the Bucks’ roster. But the three prospects are quite different in other aspects of the game.
Zeller has a more refined offensive and defensive game, considering he spent a full four years playing at North Carolina. Melo and Leonard both played two years in college — with limited playing time in the first season — and are more developed defensively than offensively. That’s especially true for Melo, who admitted that he’s still catching up with the speed of the game.
The choice between the trio, if all three are available when the Bucks pick, will mean revisiting the question of drafting for upside, as opposed to selecting an established player with possibly less potential.
Leonard — who, considering his superior athletic ability, never fully flourished under Bruce Weber at Illinois — has been one of the draft’s fastest risers, a testament he credits to refining his game in the offseason and showing scouts some skills they might not have seen during his time in Champaign.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I feel like I had something to prove,” Leonard said. “Over the last couple weeks with workouts and at the combine, I feel like I’ve surprised some people.”
And McKinney seemed to be one of those who came away pleasantly surprised by Leonard’s performance, noting the center’s versatility and mobility as perhaps a non-traditional five-man.
“Meyers is a very good shooter at 7-foot-1, 240 pounds — a guy who can really run the floor and pass the ball,” McKinney said. “Sometimes the workouts don’t do the justice all of the time of what we might see through the course of a game, but it kind of fills in the blanks for us.”
Melo also falls into that upside argument, as his numbers weren’t particularly great at Syracuse, especially on offense. An eligibility issue that held Melo out of the NCAA tournament last season also was an initial concern in regard to his maturity, but McKinney didn’t seem too concerned, claiming that Melo has been very open about the situation in their conversations. He went as far as to make a lofty comparison between Melo and NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, another raw defensive talent when he came to the NBA. Of course, like everyone else, he’s not sure Melo would pan out like Olajuwon did.
“(Melo) didn’t have gawdy numbers, but on that team they had a bunch of guys that can score,” McKinney said. “His forte is being a defensive specialist.”
And then there’s Zeller, an already established player who is more developed than Leonard and Melo at this point. But Zeller’s ceiling has frequently been in question, considering the NBA’s growing affinity for younger, higher-potential players in the top of the first round.
It’s clear Zeller has heard those criticisms before, and he doesn’t quite understand them. McKinney, too, agrees that Zeller’s experience at North Carolina is a positive.
“Obviously, being there for four years, I played a lot,” Zeller said. “I have a lot of college experience, and hopefully that translates to the NBA. We don’t know that yet.”
We don’t know much about the Bucks’ hopes for the No. 12 pick, and there are still plenty of questions remaining about the players who worked out for the team Thursday. But one thing is clear: The Bucks are trying to get big, and their selecting anything other than a center in the first round of the June 28 draft would be quite a surprise.