The Milwaukee Bucks training camp battle will see a handful of NBA veterans fighting for one final roster spot. Who will come out on top?
For the second time in as many years, the Milwaukee Bucks will hold a training camp battle for the likely 15th and final spot on the team’s opening day roster.
In the 2017 preseason, the Bucks brought a number of NBA journeymen hoping to prolong or ignite their careers as the final piece of then-head coach Jason Kidd’s bench. Among those hoping to cling onto the NBA dream were two-time NBA Champion big man Joel Anthony, nifty passer and former Buck Kendall Marshall, NBA and NCAA Champion Brandon Rush and former Celtics first-round pick James Young.
Ultimately, after a mostly unimpressive training camp, the team appeared to have settled on the player that most expected would make the roster from the get-go: Gerald Green. Green was fresh off of a playoff performance with the Boston Celtics in which he started seven games and shot over 46% from beyond the arc for the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. For a young(ish) team in need of veteran leadership and three-point shooting, the veteran Green was the obvious choice to fill out the roster.
But because nothing about Jason Kidd’s tenure as coach makes sense, Green was unceremoniously waived after appearing to be the last man standing and decided to claim shooting guard DeAndre Liggins off of waivers. The whole thing was a mess, naturally.
Liggins proved to be a favorite of coach Kidd’s and was regularly the first man off the bench in crucial games, despite the team’s putrid offensive performance while he was on the court. Eventually, Bucks general manager Jon Horst opted to waive Liggins’ non-guaranteed contract, with many theorizing the move was the only way to force Kidd to stop playing a clearly bad player heavy rotation minutes. Gerald Green, conversely, averaged double-digit points and above average shooting splits for the best team in the league — the Houston Rockets. So it goes.
The Bucks surely hope that this year’s competition will be more traditional and yield better results for the bottom half of the roster. With Horst coming into his own and new head coach Mike Budenholzer in town, the process should be much more efficient and transparent. But, let’s be honest, the bar is pretty low. Nevertheless, the Bucks have a handful of interesting options with a healthy amount of pros and cons working in their favor. So, who are they?
The Familiar Faces
Tyler Zeller, C, 28 years old
Of anyone in the running for the Bucks final roster spot, no one has as much of a head start as the former North Carolina star. The team invested a second-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to acquire Zeller, who never got a full opportunity to make an impact after coming over from the Brooklyn Nets. Zeller averaged 7.1 points per game and 4.6 rebounds as the starting center for the Nets, before the emergence of first-round pick Jarrett Allen. For the Bucks, Zeller often appeared to be the best big man on the averaging career highs in field goal percentage, two-point percentage, free throws, and effective field goal percentage while appearing in 24 contests. Jason Kidd’s track record, that probably wasn’t considered much of a priority. In the end, Zeller’s regular season (and effectively his postseason) was cut short due to a nagging back injury sustained in a nasty spill on the court.
Why he will make the team: The Bucks have already committed draft pick compensation into acquiring Zeller and it’s unclear if Jon Horst is ready to eat the loss of a pick for a half-season rental. Zeller also played effectively during his short time with Milwaukee and often looked to be the best option on the roster. The deciding factor for Zeller could end up being his contract. He’s got a $1.9 million contract that is partially guaranteed. If it’s neck and neck between Zeller and another player, the team could value the current parameter of his contract and give him the edge.
Why he won’t make the team: The Bucks have a surplus of interesting bigs who will need some form of playing time. The team acquired Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova and are still stuck with John Henson. And after Thon Maker’s coming out party in the postseason (again), it might just be a numbers game that ends Zeller’s Bucks career.
Shabazz Muhammad, F, 25 years old
Shabazz Muhammad joined the Bucks late last season after four-and-a-half disappointing campaigns with the Minnesota Timberwolves. While with the Bucks, Muhammad was used as a spark plug off the bench when the team was in desperate need of a bucket — a role once manned by the incomparable . Muhammad rewarded the Bucks with career highs in field goal percentage and free throw percentage while being a passable three-point shooter (in limited attempts) and providing the team with some much needed rebounding energy. Unfortunately, some of Muhammad’s bad habits from his Minnesota days made the trip with him down Interstate 94. Muhammad continued to look lost while playing off- defense and despite crazy-efficient numbers, he continued to display an otherworldly amount of tunnel vision for scoring.
Why he will make the team: The Bucks value his energy and while have an abundance of centers and guards on contract for 2018-19, there is a dearth of forwards who can enter a game and play passable basketball without collapsing under the pressure. If Ilyasova were to get injured or if Tony Snell is unable to play above his weight or if DJ Wilson isn’t ready for more minutes (which, let’s be honest, seems likely), the Bucks could be forced to play Giannis Antetokounmpo an unhealthy amount of minutes for the second year in a row. Budenholzer has a knack for reclamation projects and he might feel he can tap into the potential that once made Muhammad one of the most highly recruited players in America.
Why he won’t make the team: At this point in his career, teams know the type of player Shabazz Muhammad is. The Bucks likely believe his efficient shooting is a mirage and Minnesota Shabazz is the real Shabazz. His batch scoring off the bench isn’t something that is irreplaceable, and the Bucks know they can get similar production out of Donte DiVincenzo and/or Pat Connaughton as well as Ilyasova and Malcolm who will likely be leading a much deeper bench unit this time around.
The Potential Play
Christian Wood, F/C, 23 years old
In most cases, the obvious solution would be for the Bucks to dedicate one of their two-way roster spots to Wood in hopes of keeping him close and developing him while the rest of the roster shakes out. But reports said Wood wasn’t interested in a two-way contract as he thought his performance warranted a full spot on an NBA roster. Undeterred, the Bucks brought Wood back for training camp hoping he can either earn the 15th and final spot or, maybe, Horst and Budenholzer can convince Wood to change his tune and sign a two-way contract to remain with the franchise. For his trouble, the Bucks gave Wood a healthy amount of guaranteed money to come along for training camp, which looks good for his chances.
Why he will make the team: The Bucks need young assets and perhaps none of the players they have drafted in the last three years outside of Brogdon shown as much promise as Wood has in limited action. The Bucks want to start their own version of Hawks University with Budenholzer in charge and Christian Wood looks like he has what it takes to graduate.
Why he won’t make the team: What position does Christian Wood play? He played primarily the 5 during Summer League and although he has some quickness and skill, does he have enough to be a difference maker at the 4 when he’s not playing against fringe NBA players? If he’s a center, then we have the same problem with Tyler Zeller, except Wood has less a body of work and more question marks due to his slight frame and limited action against real competition. If the Bucks truly believe the clock is ticking regarding Antetokounmpo, the organization might feel an immediate contributor is more valuable than a project.
The Depth Signing
Tim Frazier, G, 27 years old
The Bucks have an obvious need at backup point guard following the release of Brandon Jennings and Matthew Dellavedova’s continued . If Malcolm Brogdon projects to play more minutes as a combo guard with Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the primary ballhandlers, there will be plenty of minutes for someone to seize. Enter (nickname I just decided on and is definitely official). Frazier has managed to carve out a six-year career in the league as an undrafted, undersized guard with limited scoring prowess. Frazier got his start in the G League (then the D League) where he earned just about every possible accolade the league has to offer, including Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. From there, Frazier bounced around the league signing ten-day contracts to eat up some backup guard minutes for the occasional middling playoff team. In 2016 he latched onto the New Orleans Pelicans roster where he found his most success in the league, appearing in 65 games. Frazier is a below average shooter and struggles defensively — as one might expect from a barely 6-footer — against larger, more physical players. What he lacks as a shooter he makes up for with some creative handle and a quick first step. Although the Penn State grad has the 6th most assists in Big Ten history, his playmaking leaves a lot to be desired.
Why he will make the team: Frazier is more than capable as the third point guard on an NBA team and can serve as a mentor for some of the Bucks younger players. Not particularly great or bad at anything means he can enter a game for short bursts to either maintain a lead or spell the starter without being a significant target for the other team. As a veteran who has a history of working his tail off to earn his shot in the league, you can expect a good teammate and little drama.
Why he won’t make the team: Frazier just isn’t quite good enough for the team to feel comfortable with him in case of emergency. If Budenholzer feels confident that Dellavedova can turn back the clock to his Cleveland days and hit 40% of his threes and annoy the other team defensively, his value will dwarf any skills Frazier can contribute. The Bucks might also feel better dedicating more time and effort to develop Trevon Duval to eventually be the third point guard.
The Two-way Guys
The Bucks currently have Trevon Duval and Jaylen Morris on two-way contracts for the 2018-19 season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t seize a full-time spot if they impress the organization with some excellent play in the preseason.
Trevon Duval, G, 20 years old
The Duke point guard was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and despite having no outside game, Duval managed to score double-digit points for one of the premiere college basketball programs in the nation. With good size (6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and quick first step and leaping ability, it’s easy to see why Duval was so highly thought of coming out of high school. But the big knock on Duval is what many consider to be a busted jumper. At Duval had a sub-50% field goal percentage and shot 60% from the charity stripe. We won’t even mention his abysmal numbers from beyond the arc… okay, it’s 29%. Duval is the definition of a project player. If Bud’s staff, particularly known shot doctor Ben Sullivan, can rebuild Duval’s jumper and instill basic playmaking instincts, who knows what Duval could become.
Jaylen Morris, G/F, 23 years old
Drafted by the Erie Bayhawks in the G League draft last year, Morris has some close ties to the new Milwaukee Bucks coaching staff. The Bayhawks, the G League affiliate of the Atlanta Hawks, were coached by new Bucks assistant coach Josh Longstaff last season and after starting every game for the Bayhawks, Morris was invited to the show on a 10-day contract with the Hawks – Budenholzer’s former team. Although his appearances with Atlanta were few and far between, the current Bucks coaching staff clearly sees something they like in Morris. The Molloy College alum offers NBA level size with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and quick feet and at the very least projects to be a worthwhile defensive project. For Morris, as is the case with Duval, scoring and stretching the floor will be the biggest hurdle. If the coaching staff can take his NBA ready body and add a competent scoring punch, Morris has a shot to carve out a successful career as an NBA role player.
Why one of them will make the team: . Or, Bud and his coaching staff want to keep a closer eye on their project players in hopes they can speed along their development process. OR… in a shocking move that really doesn’t surprise anyone, the Bucks waive DJ Wilson, opening up another roster spot for Morris or Duval.
Why neither of them will make the team: Either Zeller, Muhammad, Frazier or Wood is just better, which is safe to assume at this point.
Why one of them will lose their spot: If Duval or Morris looks incapable of playing at the next level OR if Christian Wood changes his mind about a two-way contract, the team should have no problem severing ties for a more promising project – be it Wood or another young free agent.
So who will be the Bucks’ 15th man?
At this current juncture, I would say it’s a two-man race between Tyler Zeller and Christian Wood. If the Bucks are unable to move one of their existing center contracts (ahem, John Henson), one of these guys will be gone. If I were making the decision based on positional need, past investment, and future upside, my money is on Christian Wood.
Which means your 2018-19 15th man for the Milwaukee Bucks is…