Open scrimmages like the one the Milwaukee Bucks hosted at Fiserv Forum on Saturday have to be taken with a grain of salt.
The players are going hard, but aren’t at their regular-season best. They know the plays and sets the other team is trying to run and the coaches are toying with the roster, putting together units that might not play together much down the road.
That being said, however, it was hard to ignore the play of Christian Wood, one of the four players battling for Milwaukee’s 15th and final roster spot. The 23-year-old’s performance Saturday continued a summer in which he has publicly ingratiated himself to the Bucks and their fan base more than any other player through his stellar play in summer league and solid start to training camp.
“I feel like after summer league I developed a fan base in Milwaukee and the fans really started to have a feel for me,” Wood said. “I felt it, I felt the respect. It took a while for me to sign, to get a contract and everybody was waiting and stuff. I feel like people are behind me and trying to support me, so it’s real good.”
Wood’s first appearance in front of those Milwaukee fans on Saturday didn’t disappoint. Almost as soon as he entered the game, he made his mark on the glass, battling inside for multiple offensive rebounds.
In the scrimmage’s second, 10-minute quarter, Wood brought out some extra hustle, tracking down an offensive rebound beyond the three-point line and knocking it out of bounds off Thon Maker to give his team an extra possession. That bonus chance turned into a missed three-pointer that Wood rebounded and quickly slammed back home.
Wood later had a stretch where he grabbed an offensive rebound, hit a corner three-pointer and came up with a steal. Off that steal, the 6-foot-10 forward-center pushed the ball across the court himself, but correctly read the defense and stopped his break to allow the offense to set up. He passed the ball off and moved away, later getting it back and driving to the hoop for a bucket.
Add in a handful more three-pointers and some strong drives to the basket – including a couple past Maker for layups – and Wood finished with an impressive Milwaukee debut.
“Christian, I think with summer league, too, he’s just got a skill set that fits us,” coach Mike Budenholzer said at the outset of training camp. “An ability to kind of play around the three-point line, make shots, but then attack close-outs, drive it. Defensively I think he can impact the game around the basket. … When he gets a chance he’s been good.”
Wood has been quietly journeying through the NBA and G League since going undrafted in 2015 when he left UNLV following his sophomore season. That path has included 30 NBA appearances split between Philadelphia and Charlotte and 95 G League games with three different teams.
This off-season, he joined the Bucks for summer league and made an indelible mark on the 30-team event despite Milwaukee getting ousted early in the tournament. In five summer-league games, Wood averaged 20.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks over 27.1 minutes per game while shooting 55.4% from the field and 30.8% on three-pointers. Those stats propelled him to the all-summer-league first team.
As well as he did during summer league, Wood didn’t find the reward he’s been searching for in the form of a guaranteed contract. He had workouts with teams following summer league, but no full-season, guaranteed contract materialized before he opted to join the Bucks for training camp.
“Summer’s been brutal,” Wood said. “Nothing but me putting in work.”
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, known league-wide for his incredible work ethic, has taken notice of what Wood has been up to this summer, including during voluntary team workouts. He made it a point to approach Wood around the start of training camp and give him a bracelet that features the words “prove them wrong.”
“He said he knew my story a little bit, he likes how I play, he likes my grind,” Wood said. “It’s all respect to him.”
If Wood is going to achieve his goal of getting a guaranteed contract, he still has plenty of work to do. To make the Bucks’ roster, he’ll have to beat out Shabazz Muhammad, Tyler Zeller and Tim Frazier, all NBA veterans who have proven themselves at the highest level and bring skills the Bucks could benefit from.
Muhammad, in particular, could pose as a strong competitor. After joining the Bucks last spring, Muhammad provided a spark off the bench as someone who could score in bunches. He’s worked to improve his outside shooting this summer, is familiar with Milwaukee’s roster and performed well in Saturday’s scrimmage, standing out in the final quarter of day when he was active on the boards and went to work as a scorer both inside and out — sometimes at Wood’s direct expense.
“I’m just happy to be here with these guys,” Muhammad said. “They all work hard and they’re all good people. That’s something that’s a little bit easier for me – I take full advantage that I’ve worked with a lot of these guys and have a relationship already.”
Muhammad, Wood, Zeller and Frazier are not just auditioning for the Bucks, either. Other teams could potentially become interested in their skills and offer him a deal, especially if the Bucks decide to go a different direction with their final roster spot. A year ago, Milwaukee opted not to go with any of the players they brought to training camp, instead signing free agent DeAndre Liggins to their regular-season roster.
Until the final decision is made, Wood knows what he did both in summer league and to this point in training camp doesn’t matter much. He has to finish the job.
“Still grinding ’til now,” Wood said. “Still got to make the roster at the end of the day.”