Seemingly everywhere around the Milwaukee Bucks’ Sports Science Center on Wednesday afternoon, players were putting up three-point shots.
And it wasn’t just the usual suspects, either.
Eric Bledsoe and Tim Frazier were working their way around the arc at one hoop while a cluster of five players was putting up long-range shots at the other end. On the other court, Malcolm Brogdon and John Henson – yes, Henson – were taking turns on corner threes. Later, centers Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller were getting reps above the break.
The emphasis on three-point shooting is part of the offensive system that new coach Mike Budenholzer brought with him to Milwaukee. He wants and encourages every player to improve as a long-range shooter, especially from the corners, which represent the shortest distance worth three points and a high-efficiency spot for teams that can take advantage of it.
“Just the daily drill work, where they’re getting their shots in their individual workouts, then in the shooting drills and in the scrimmages, it’s just hammered home to them,” Budenholzer said. “There’s just a lot of threes that you see going up from the start of practice to the end of practice. I think it just kind of becomes a little bit contagious. Everybody realizes that’s what we want. We want, obviously, open, good threes. It’s important to us.”
The Bucks have been one of the slower teams when it comes to embracing the league’s recent three-point revolution. In each of the past five years, the Bucks have ranked at or near the bottom of the NBA in three-point attempts per game, ranking 25th with 24.7 attempts per contest last season, making 8.8 per contest (35.5%).
Part of Milwaukee’s past three-point aversion stemmed from the fact that star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who drives most of the offense, hasn’t yet developed a consistent jump shot and demurred at the prospect of taking many outside shots.
However, there was also a reluctance on the part of the coaching staff, with former coach Jason Kidd pushing back against the analytics that push three-point attempts in favor of the inside-attacking he was familiar with as a player.
Where Kidd might have seen players who weren’t ready or capable of shooting outside and should instead step in, Budenholzer sees the possibility for growth and pushes skill development that will ultimately produce more spacing for everyone. During Budenholzer’s five years as Atlanta’s coach, the Hawks ranked in the top 10 in three-point attempts four times and became known for their ability – one through five – to space the floor.
“Tell them to keep shooting,” Budenholzer said when asked about changing the team’s mentality surrounding three-pointers. “I think lots of people, bigs in particular, probably, they miss one or two and they may expect (us) to say, ‘Stop’ or ‘We don’t want that.’ I think right now we’re very much in an encouragement mode. We want guys to expand their range, expand their games. I think when you give them confidence and they know that you want it that’s the biggest thing you can do.”
Milwaukee’s front office believes and has put stock in Budenholzer’s approach. The Bucks loaded up on capable three-point shooters this off-season, including adding big men Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, who have proven themselves willing and able to knock down three-pointers, as well as guards Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo.
So far, Milwaukee’s players have enjoyed the change, with Henson – who is 1 for 13 from long range over his six-year career – calling Budenholzer’s system more of a modern approach.
“Part of being in the NBA is adapting to a new system, to a new coach,” said Henson, who barely rippled the net on at least one corner trey after practice. “To be successful you have to be adaptable. As a team I think we’re doing that. …
“This coaching staff does a great job of giving us confidence. Me, personally, I’m coming in in the mornings and getting some shots in with Vin (Baker) and getting those extra reps up. I’ll have the time – guys aren’t just going to run me off the line at first. It’s just about making them at this point.”
The change in shooting and spacing mentality won’t just affect players like Henson, who has never been an outside threat. Khris Middleton, one of the league’s rare, elite mid-range scorers, has also been preparing himself for the coming adjustment.
Middleton, who was good for about four three-point attempts per game in his first four years with the Bucks and shot over 40% on those tries, upped his long-range attempts to five per game last season with varied results. His three-point percentage dipped to 35.9%, but his overall offensive efficiency went up.
“I’m not going to just throw my mid-range away,” Middleton said. “That’s my strength right now. But instead of just taking one or two dribbles in, (I’ll) just go ahead and take that three. It’s been there in the past, I’ve always just taken one or two more dribbles inside. … Most of the time that step-back three or catch-and-shoot three is going to be there. Just got to be confident and let it go.”
Considering Middleton’s elite mid-range skills, Budenholzer expects it might take a little extra push to consistently get Middleton behind the three-point line more. He recognizes that he’ll need to thread the needle between keeping what was already good and adding the right amount and type of shots from outside.
That doesn’t only apply to Middleton.
“It’s not just me, it’s everybody,” Middleton said. “Giannis is shooting more threes, even John Henson. … He wants the guys to play together, play the same type of way, but also play to their strengths. I don’t think you’ll see John shooting 5-10 threes a game, but if he’s open he’s going to shoot it and knock it down. Same thing with me and the other guys.”