As the darling of Summer League and the most intriguing storyline of Milwaukee Bucks training camp, Christian Wood is aiming to take the next step and establish himself as a consistent NBA-level contributor.
A world exists where Christian Wood is the primary backup center for the Milwaukee Bucks for the 2018-19 season. Another world exists where Christian Wood does not make the regular season roster, and ends up with another organization, in the NBA G League, or even overseas. A final option sees Wood playing only limited minutes in mop-up time, never breaking into Mike Budenholzer’s rotation.
Let’s further explore Wood’s best case scenario, though, where he puts it all together with improved discipline and effort, wins the battle for the roster spot, and eventually cements himself into Mike Budenholzer’s rotation as a backup big man in front of John Henson and Thon Maker.
What might this actually look like alongside the established players in the rotation?
While Brook Lopez is likely to play 25-30 minutes a night when healthy, Wood could be a primary candidate to pick up some of those remaining minutes. The Bucks are sure to send out an offense-laden lineup consisting of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ersan Ilysaova at the four and five spots on plenty of occasions throughout the season, but Budenholzer will still need more size at his disposal.
Wood’s molding into the Bucks rotation would have to start with his ability to space the floor as a five-man in the new offensive system. After only a couple weeks of training camp, it is clear that the paint is to be left open, unclogged for the ball-handlers and playmakers to go to work. If Wood can pose a threat of knocking down an open three pointer at over a 30 percent clip, opposing bigs will have to play him that much further away from the basket.
The high screen is also a key driver to Wood’s potential placement in the rotation. His ability to either pop to the three-point line or dive at the basket to receive a pocket pass or lob to finish with his functional athleticism and co-ordination are options that Henson (with the shot) and Maker (with the coordination) do not possess.
Wood’s tendency to crash the offensive boards and look for easy put-backs also may have its place. With the Jason Kidd regime strongly avoiding offensive rebounds, Mike Budenholzer could have two natural offensive rebounders in Ilyasova and Wood, perhaps utilizing them in lineups together with strategic concepts to play to their rebounding strengths.
This overall offensive versatility is certainly what makes Wood’s chance at a rotation spot not as far fetched as some may think, especially if Henson and Maker do not expand their games by improving on their known weaknesses.
On defense, Wood will have to play more physically than he has in the past, as he will almost always be matched up on the opposing five-man. The aforementioned tandem of Ilyasova and Wood would see its struggles at times with size and physicality on the defensive end of the court, and would have to rely on hustle, positioning, and discipline — something Wood has been tasked with improving.
Ilyasova has made a career out of being in the right position and sacrificing his body to draw offensive fouls. Wood, with the greater athleticism and wingspan, would be counted on more for basket protection and challenging players at the rim, something Ilyasova does not provide.
In this world of a disciplined, high-effort Christian Wood, the four/five lineup combination with he and Ilyasova just might have a chance to succeed for 10-15 minutes a night against other team’s less talented back-up bigs. Strength is surely sacrificed, however the offensive flexibility, floor stretching, hustle rebounding, and at minimum, complementary defense, may be enough to get by in small stretches.
To state the obvious, any minutes played alongside Antetokounmpo would be most ideal for Christian Wood, or really any other player for that matter. This is where Wood’s floor stretching capability would be paramount, to open up the paint for Antetokounmpo to do as he pleases. Defensively, it is best to just assume that it is better to have Antetokounmpo in the lineup with you than not with you.
The final rotation option utilizes Wood as the emergency four-man, next to any of the other big men. This is far less likely, however any injury to Antetokounmpo or Ilyasova will require someone to step up at this spot to fill some minutes. An understated factor in the battle for the final roster spot is the ability to play sporadic minutes at the four, as Antetokounmpo has sat out games in past seasons to rest nagging injuries (knee, ankle).
Time will tell if Budenholzer is willing to play Khris Middleton as an emergency four, however that has gone poorly in past experiences.
The battle for the final roster spot(s) will likely come down to the final days of preseason. As it stands now, only one spot can be had between Wood, Shabazz Muhammed, Tim Frazier, and the incumbent Tyler Zeller, who is on a non-guaranteed deal. While chances are likely lower, other events may occur to potentially open up a second spot, such as waiving D.J. Wilson due to lack of confidence in his development.
Christian Wood has the upside and talent to see the court for the Milwaukee Bucks this season, and there are certainly possible lineup combinations where he can play to his strengths. Many things have to first fall in place, starting with the obvious making of the final roster and showing improved effort and discipline, but if it does all come together, we may be looking at one of Jon Horst’s better moves on the fringes of the roster in his GM tenure.