Bucks

Bucks Summer League Hosts Promising Young Talent

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The Bucks have been looking to develop their emerging young talent in Las Vegas at the NBA Summer League over the past week. 

In years past, Milwaukee’s performance in Summer League has been average at best. The Bucks accumulated a 3-2 record last year in Las Vegas, and in 2021 they finished just 1-4.

This year, Milwaukee got off to a 2-0 start after defeating the Denver Nuggets 92-85 last Friday and then coming back from a 13-point deficit to beat the Phoenix Suns 84-75 the next day. However, a third-quarter meltdown against Brooklyn on Tuesday — in which they were outscored 35-9 — was the first crack in a crumbling Bucks squad. Milwaukee lost their last two games to Brooklyn and Miami by a combined 40 points.

Although the back half of Summer League play was characterized by many of the same struggles the Bucks have seen in years past, Milwaukee can come away from the 2023 Summer League feeling more optimistic. And that’s because of the talented youthful core that made up the Bucks roster.

The roster looked much more promising than in past years — at least on paper. An initial roster of 20 players was first reported on June 30, including some surprising names like former Celtics and Cavaliers big man Tacko Fall

Perhaps the most shocking inclusion was former Buck and No. 2 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jabari Parker. However, the excitement of many fans was doused the following day as The Athletic’s Eric Nehm reported that Parker would actually not be suiting up for the Bucks due to, “a family matter.”

This year, under the leadership of first-year head coach Adrian Griffin — who coached the Summer League team as well — Milwaukee is starting a new chapter focused on developing young players. The players the Bucks sought out in the 2023 NBA Draft typify the direction of the team: athletic and mobile defenders. The recent pair of draftees — Andre Jackson Jr. and Chris Livingston — headline a deep roster for Milwaukee that reflects their new values. 

The Rookies

After obtaining the No. 36 pick in the draft in a deal with Orlando, the Bucks drafted Jackson Jr., an NCAA champion from Connecticut. The 21-year-old is a high-rising athlete with solid defensive instincts. He dealt with some injury concerns in college, but Bucks general manager Jon Horst said the team is “comfortable with where he is medically”. Still, his defensive impact is abundantly apparent, and the bottom line is that he is a winner. Having guys that know how to lead winning teams is invaluable.

Monitoring Jackson’s ability to stretch out and knock down threes will be of interest to the Bucks staff. The 6-foot-6 wing shot just over 28 percent from deep on 2.5 attempts per game last season. If he is going to see the floor much during his rookie campaign, Jackson Jr. will likely need to see an improvement from beyond the arc.

Seth Davis of The Athletic spoke with a group of NBA scouts about prospects in this year’s draft, and one scout had this to say about Jackson Jr.: “If he could shoot at all he’d be a lottery pick. He came to Chicago for the combine and it looked like he was trying to change his shot from what he did during the season. It was awkward. His shot’s gotta be torn down and rebuilt.”

While that illustrates the concern about Jackson Jr., the anonymous scout went on to add many positive things about the rookie too, “Competitive locker room leader. Mr. Utility Guy. He can do all the Draymond Green stuff.”

Shooting isn’t really his calling card. Jackson Jr. is a freakish athlete who brings defensive intensity. That is what he does, and already, he is doing it at a high level in Summer League. He has had a handful of high-flying blocks that have shocked and electrified fans. His on-ball pressure has stood out as well.

That defensive promise is what helped Jackson Jr. ink a guaranteed deal, which the Bucks announced on July 7.

It seemed Horst was locked in on Kentucky’s one-and-done Livingston at pick No. 58 long before draft night. On June 8, Shams Charania reported the 19-year-old had canceled his remaining seven pre-draft workouts with teams, adding there was, “belief that he’s received a draft promise from a team.” After Livingston’s agent, Rich Paul, put out word telling teams not to draft the young forward in the second round, it became increasingly apparent that he had a set destination.

And with the final pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, the Bucks revealed that Milwaukee would be that destination. 

There are certainly doubts surrounding Livingston — although you never expect a perfect player with the last pick in the draft, so that isn’t really surprising. The former five-star recruit had an underwhelming solo season in Lexington. He averaged just 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. While the numbers aren’t startling, his athleticism is.

In Davis’ article, he relayed this comment from one NBA scout about Livingston, “What does he do? He’s not a high-level 3-point shooter, he’s not a high-level creator off the bounce. He can rebound a little. Never did find himself this year at Kentucky. He’s not a consistent jump shooter. He’s just not very skilled.”

Griffin’s plan for the Bucks will certainly involve athletes that can defend, and Livingston fits that mold. It may be seen as a bit of a risk to take him, but with the last pick, why not take a shot at a grand slam?

If there were still any doubts surrounding just how excited the Bucks seem to be about Livingston, that was put to rest last Saturday when it was announced that he had signed a four-year, $7.7 million contract — the largest rookie deal ever signed by the final pick of a draft. 

In four starts, Livingston is averaging 7.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Jackson Jr.’s impact has largely gone above the stat sheet, but he too has been a starter for the first two games, averaging 5.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

The Returnees

Perhaps the most important player on the Summer League roster has yet to be mentioned, and that’s former first-round pick MarJon Beauchamp

After seeing solid minutes in the early stages of the season, Beauchamp was largely sidelined by former head coach Mike Budenholzer for much of the back half of the season. The rookie ended the season averaging 5.1 points per game, but his showcase of athleticism and defense should earn him time under Griffin.

Last season, Beauchamp surprised many Bucks fans by shooting a respectable 33 percent on 2.7 attempts per game from three. If he can continue to improve his shooting, there could be a big role waiting for the former G-League Ignite standout next season. 

Through the first two games, Beauchamp led the Bucks’ offense. He posted a team-high 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting last Friday. He has shown resilience, too. After struggling at the start of Friday’s win — shooting just 1-for-8 — Beauchamp came out on fire in the second making eight of his last 10 attempts.

Beauchamp was off to a promising start, scoring 21.5 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting through two games. Tuesday night’s bout with Brooklyn was much different, though.

Beauchamp was scoreless against Brooklyn with four turnovers. His struggles continued versus the Heat on Thursday as he barely notched double-digit scoring with 10 points on 33.3 percent shooting. His decline in play demonstrated that improvement is not always a strictly linear process. Sometimes players have to have tough games in order to learn and succeed.

Former two-way player AJ Green reportedly inked a multi-year contract last Thursday, which means the sharpshooter is being coveted as a long-term prospect by the front office.

Green is the exact opposite of every other player mentioned thus far. Shooting is not a problem. He shot just shy of 42 percent from deep during his rookie season. Actually, defensive ability and athleticism are where the questions arise. Hopefully under Griffin, the Bucks will be able to unlock parts of Green’s game that we have yet to see so he can remain on the court for extended periods of time and provide the team with elite shooting. 

Green’s role during Summer League has been limited due to injury, however. A press release from the Bucks confirmed he was dealing with right ankle soreness, but was cleared to return to action for Milwaukee against the Nets on Tuesday. Previously, he played just two minutes against Denver and then picked up a DNP versus Phoenix. Still on a minutes restriction, he had just five points in 14 minutes against the Nets before picking up yet another DNP the next game.

Another familiar face over the last week was former two-way player Lindell Wigginton. The guard has floated in and out of the Wisconsin Herd and a two-way position with the Bucks. Of his 26 total appearances with the Deer over the past two years, 19 came last season, and Wigginton averaged 7.1 points in those appearances. 

Wigginton will likely reclaim one of the three two-way spots — an increase from the previous two that will take effect this season — or he could compete for what appears to be the final full-time roster spot (although Thanasis Antetokounmpo has yet to re-sign with the team, and is expected to do so).

Similar to Green, Wigginton’s role before Tuesday was depleted due to injury. The 25-year-old didn’t log a second in either of Milwaukee’s first two games due to left groin soreness. In his first appearance with the squad on Tuesday, he led the team in scoring with 11 points. On Thursday, Wigginton led the squad in scoring once again with 15 points.

The Veterans

The biggest draw to the casual viewer might have been the towering 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall. The league’s tallest player didn’t play a game last season, and in his first three years in the pros, he suited up for just 37 total NBA games, playing just 6.2 minutes on average.

When he’s in the game, his defensive impact in the paint is apparent. His frame allows him to easily alter shots, even against the most athletic opponents. Who could forget his performance against Zion Williamson and Duke in the 2019 NCAA Tournament?

There is an appeal to Fall, but the downside will probably rule the day when it comes to his chances at landing on the 15-man roster. Fall can’t play for extended periods, and his speed makes it difficult to guard dribble drives or three-point shooters. 

Still, his play was stellar in the second half last Saturday. Fall amassed 10 points and three blocks in what became a very productive day for the center.

Former Warrior Turned Buck?

Another former NBA notable is Nico Mannion, who played for Golden State in 2020-21 for 30 games. Mannion is an intriguing option for a two-way deal because of his experience and position. It’s no secret that Milwaukee is lacking depth at the point, and Mannion could be helpful in extending the bench.

Despite starting the first two games, however, Mannion’s shooting struggled mightily. Yes, he scored 16 points against Denver, but he did so with 1-of-6 shooting from deep. Admittedly, his performance last Friday wasn’t bad outside of the three-point shooting, but the following games were much different. The guard missed all 15 of his attempts from three and shot just 3-of-22 from the floor over the last two games. Mannion picked up a DNP on Thursday.

Another Former NBA Player Vying for longer NBA Life

Tyler Cook has three years of NBA experience, most recently with the Bulls in 2021-22. The forward is also looking for a return to the league. He is an athletic, above-the-rim big who made his presence known on Saturday, racking up double-digit scoring in just the third quarter alone.

The Two-Way Hopefuls

One undrafted rookie has already landed a two-way slot. San Jose State wing Omari Moore averaged 17.4 points last season before landing with the Bucks. Still, two-way deals are notoriously unreliable. He could lose that contract at any moment, so he’ll have to prove himself. But the front office clearly likes Moore, and for good reason.

He is an athletic playmaker, who fits the Bucks rookie mold to a tee: athletic and 6-foot-6. 

His start to the Summer League has been forgettable, though. After a scoreless first two games, Moore registered six points on Tuesday before going right back to a third scoreless performance on Thursday.

Drew Timme, a college standout from Gonzaga caught the attention of fans when it was reported he had signed an Exhibit 10 contract — a non-guaranteed training camp deal — with the team. Timme was a multiple-time All-American in college who had an incredibly successful collegiate career. Although, he went undrafted because of his lack of athleticism and shooting. 

Timme isn’t exactly the modern big, but his skill in the paint and experience as a winner cannot be overlooked. While it will take some work for him to earn a two-way slot, he could be a valuable asset for the Herd either way. 

There was a lot of confusion about this next prospect, Jazian Gortman. For those of you chronically on Bucks Twitter, you may know that a certain fanpage caused a lot of confused reports about Gortman’s signing, but it turns out they were right, at least to a certain extent. 

The 20-year-old last player for Overtime Elite, and is competing for a shot at filling a two-way slot and providing depth at the point. Although it won’t be easy seeing as Gortman will likely have to win the spot over Wigginton and Mannion, among others. He has averaged 5.0 points per game through the first three contests. 

Finally, last year’s No. 58 pick in the NBA Draft, French standout Hugo Besson is back with the Bucks, but it seems like his chances of landing on the roster are slim. 

“I don’t think it’s likely that [Besson will] be on our roster now, but he’s absolutely part of our future,” said Horst. Besson did not play in either game over the weekend.

It’s a long roster, and a highly talented one that has brought glimpses of Summer League success for the Bucks.

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About Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick is a sports writer from North Carolina. He has run independent blogs and begun writing for The Lead in 2023. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel as well, where he has worked since September of 2022.

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