Younger players getting plenty of court time for Bucks

Injuries have sped up the process, but the Bucks are playing more young players and liking what they see.

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- Sitting in the cellar of the Eastern Conference with a roster depleted by injuries, the Milwaukee Bucks have an eye on the future. While nobody within the organization is giving up on this season 21 games in, youth is beginning to take precedence.

Whether due to injury or by choice, Bucks coach Larry Drew has given many of the team's young players a healthy share of minutes of late.

John Henson has taken over as Milwaukee's starting center, Khris Middleton is starting at small forward and rookies Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nate Wolters are seeing time off the bench. Three of those players are 22 years old, while Antetokounmpo just turned 19.

"It's unfortunate the situation is the way it is, but I can't think of a better way for a rookie to grow and learn than being out there on the floor," Drew said.

If the Bucks had their full roster, Drew would be faced with numerous youth versus veteran decisions, but for now he only has to make that call at point guard. Brandon Knight is starting at 22 years old, while the backup decision comes down to 22-year-old rookie Nate Wolters and 32-year-old Luke Ridnour.

Ridnour had been serving as the primary backup since returning from a back injury, but Wolters has taken over and the veteran has played just three minutes over the last three games.

"It's always tough," Drew said. "That's the nature of this business. I think there are pros and cons to doing it either way. Right now I've elected to go with Nate, and we'll see what happens."

Drew will face a similar decision at small forward when Caron Butler returns from a knee injury. Middleton has proved he deserves an extended look and Antetokounmpo needs time on the floor to develop.

Small forward may prove to be a tougher call for the Bucks as Butler is a team captain and a guy who was brought in to play a big role this year. Drew admitted he has a tough call on his hands when Butler is back, but said he wants the young players to play.

"Our young guys are also talented," Drew said. "We have some guys that are really talented, and they can do some things that certainly have opened my eyes. I definitely want to have them out there.

"I know the more they are out there, the more they are going to learn. The more they are out there, the more confident they are going to become. The more they are out there, they are going to show why they belong in this league. So I am going to have a little bit of a decision on my hands."

Antetokounmpo has played much more since Butler went down, as the rookie has averaged 19.2 minutes per game over the last six games. The stats don't show the flashes of brilliance Antetokounmpo has shown at such a young age.

"With Giannis, I've always said, this kid will grow a lot faster being out on that floor than he will sitting on the bench," Drew said. "It’s good to see him trying to make the most of it.

"I have said it before, I was very intrigued by the fact that he is a guy who, if he is not scoring points, he does other things on the floor that affect the game. Whether it is rebound or a blocked shot or a good pass. He doesn’t have to score to be noticed out on the floor."

Drew sees the rookie's confidence growing with each game. Antetokounmpo is adjusting to the NBA and learning valuable lessons each time he steps on the court. In a season in which player development is critical, Antetokounmpo's improvement is critical.

"One of the things that I was most concerned about bringing him on board was understanding this game," Drew said. "When we go through game plan, game strategy, is he really picking everything up? He will nod his head and say he is. And he is. He understands it. When he doesn’t know, he asks questions. But right now when he steps on the floor you can see he is really bubbly, and he loves being out there. It looks like he is having fun, and that is important."

In the frontcourt, second-year forward John Henson has taken advantage of his opportunity and is coming into his own. It will be hard to deny him big minutes even when Larry Sanders returns. Even rookie Miroslav  Raduljica will get a chance to show the Bucks what he can do with Zaza Pachulia out with a fractured foot.

The veteran Pachulia understands where this season is going for the Bucks and that the team is going to go through some growing pains before reaping the rewards.

"This isn't only a one-year goal," Pachulia said. "You want to finish strong so you feel good about yourself next year. I don't want to sound like I'm already thinking about next year, but it's a process. You have to take advantage of this process. Guys who are playing need to keep playing and playing hard, get better, get the injured guys back and try to win every game.

"I see a lot of talent here. We weren't lucky with these injuries. I wish we had healthy bodies, then we would have had more time to work on our defensive and offensive plays. It's tough with guys in and out. We didn't have a chance to have everybody at a practice.

"I hate excuses, but this is reality. You have to be smart with it and definitely keep your heads up, players and coaches."

Step one in Milwaukee's process is to let the young players play, take their lumps and then evaluate what they have at the end of the season.

The focus of this year likely will be seeing what pieces the Bucks have moving forward, something Pachulia certainly sees.

"Fans and maybe the media thinks the playoffs are out of the picture, but it's still early," Pachulia said. "We still need to stay positive because it's a process. If you miss the playoffs this year, you want to put yourself in a better situation for next year. If you don't learn and don't get a feel of it or learn how to win, play well and play together, next year you will be in the same situation.

"That's why it doesn't matter how many wins or losses you have, every game, every month and every season is important to learn something from."

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