Finding a backup center critical for Bucks

MILWAUKEE — For nearly seven seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks did not need to worry much about the center position. With Andrew Bogut’s solid offensive presence in the post and terrific defensive timing while standing at 7-feet tall, the Bucks were set at that spot — at least while Bogut was healthy.

But, partly due to Bogut missing 137 games with various injuries over the past four seasons, Milwaukee general manager John Hammond shipped the 2005 No. 1 overall pick to Golden State at the trade deadline.

Almost immediately, the search for a new starting center began. Acquiring Samuel Dalembert from the Houston Rockets the day before the draft was a good start. However, now at age 31, Dalembert won’t be able to play much more than his 24 minutes-per-game average from each of his last two seasons.

So, while coach Scott Skiles can now account for approximately half the minutes at center next season, another player will have to take the other 24 minutes each game.

There are plenty of options for Skiles. Last season, first when Bogut was injured and later when Bogut was traded, Drew Gooden moved out of his natural power forward position and did a serviceable job at center. While Gooden took advantage of mismatches away from the basket against many opposing centers on offense, he struggled keeping up with the bigger bodies in the paint on defense.

Another possibility is Ekpe Udoh, a long 6-foot-10 third-year player who was acquired in the Bogut trade. Udoh rotates tremendously well on defense and blocked 1.7 shots per game last season, but he’s not quite big enough to survive too many minutes at center. The same can be said for Larry Sanders at 6-foot-11, who is a bit undersized to spend much time at center.

Given those choices, Skiles plans to decide on a game-by-game basis which of them will serve primarily as Dalembert’s backup.

“Most of that stuff is game-dependent,” Skiles said. “There’s so many teams that play small now. You’d like to always have somebody in there who can protect the rim for you, and with Ekpe, and obviously Sam can, but he might not be the guy out there when the other team is really small.

“Maybe it’s somebody else, who knows. With Larry and Ekpe and John (Henson) and Sam, we have four high-level NBA shot blockers; play a couple of those guys together for stretches, no question about that. It’s just kind of game-dependent.

“There’s a lot of teams running a 6-4 guard and three 6-8 guys and one big guy. So you hope the big players you have in the game are versatile enough, quick enough to move laterally well enough that they can guard some of those smalls. Ekpe, for sure, and Larry, and now John should be able to do that.”

The one Bucks power forward who will likely play the fewest minutes at center next season is John Henson, the team’s first-round pick in last week’s draft. Though Henson’s 7-foot-5 wingspan is a great advantage on defense, the 21-year-old weighs only 216 pounds and would get pushed around if asked to guard NBA centers.

“There’s always a thought process of where are certain guys going to fit in, but you can’t prejudge it,” Skiles said. “You wait. The evaluation process starts and you wait until you come to camp and things will shake out how they shake out.”

Entering free agency, including Henson and second-round pick Doron Lamb, the Bucks have 12 of their 15 roster spots locked in. Hammond does have some room under the salary cap to add other players, and he could also work a trade, so this will likely not be the full group that goes into the season with Skiles.

With four months to go until the regular season tips off, making too many determinations about the roster is premature, but even backup centers don’t come cheap. Omer Asik, who started only two games with the Chicago Bulls in his NBA career and played less than 15 minutes per game last season, reportedly received a three-year, $25 million offer from the Houston Rockets in free agency.

Therefore, it’s highly unlikely the Bucks would pay that type of money to bring in a free agent center to play limited minutes behind Dalembert. But with Henson, Udoh, Sanders and Dalembert, there should be plenty of shots rejected into the stands next season in Milwaukee.

“We should be one of the better shot-blocking teams in the league,” Skiles said. “You look at those guys and they can all block shots. The weakness of our team was just defending right around the rim, and everybody has a part in that. The guards have a part in that to not get beat as much, but pro players beat you.

“These are very talented guys. So you like to have guys there who can reject shots. Usually blocks that are not blocked out of bounds turn into something good on the other end. It’s a way to get out in transition and it turns into offense.

“Hopefully we’ll be a much-improved defensive team.”

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