John Salmons has been abysmal. Carlos Delfino has become the movie Fight Club since his head/neck injury (the first rule about Carlos Delfino’s injury: you do not talk about Carlos Delfino’s injury). Andrew Bogut has been struggling to play through the effects of his arm explosion and now may be down for a bit with back spasms. Only recently has Drew Gooden found his offense and Corey Maggette is still getting adjusted to his role off the bench and playing again after off-season ankle surgery.
And yet, I see another pressing concern for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The development, or lack thereof, of young players Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova and, yes, Brandon Jennings. Through 13 games, all three of them are performing either worse than, or nearly exactly the same as, they did last season.
In the case of Mbah a Moute, he’s playing the worst offensive basketball of his career this season, which, for him, is saying quite a bit. Now in his third season in the league, we have a good idea of what LRMAM is about. He’s a great defender and has been able to finish at the rim the last two seasons. This year, even that tiny spec of offensive ability has seemed escaped him, as he’s currently shooting a career worst 41.1% from the field. And I say from the field generically, not honestly, as 27 of his 56 shot attempts this season have been directly at the rim. Last year, that would have been a good thing, as he hit 62.2% of attempts at the rim, but this season, he’s down to 48.1% at the rim. Away from the rim, he’s virtually the same player he’s been for three years now, hesitant and unsure of himself.
For whatever reason, LRMAM has gotten no better as an offensive NBA player and is not working out at the small forward position for the Bucks. He does his finest work at the hoop and is incapable of creating any offense from the wing. The injury to Carlos Delfino was extra costly, as not only did it remove Milwaukee’s finest shooter from their starting lineup, but it left them with their worst small forward taking his place.
We’ve all heard about his terrific work ethic and commitment to improving. Just last season, Coach Scott Skiles had this to say about Mbah a Moute, “Whatever Luc’s high water mark as a player is going to be in the league he’s going to reach it. When he’s done playing you’re going to say he’s gotten the most out of his ability.” Perhaps he’s done that and the rest of us just expected too much of him offensively.
Of course, Mbah a Moute moving away from the power forward position for part of the game in theory opened up space for Ilyasova to get more minutes and recapture what he had last season as a stretch four.
Things haven’t worked out so well in that regard though. In the six games Delfino’s missed, Ilyasova has averaged just 7.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, numbers pretty much on par with his averages of 6.2 and 4.5 respectively on the season. From a 23-year-old who produced averages of better than 10 points and six rebounds per game last year, those are troubling numbers. The games in which he’s played the best this season have, not coincidentally, been the ones he’s played the most. In 35 minutes against Boston, he produced 15 points and seven rebounds and in 27 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks, he had 17 points and 10 rebounds. But what comes first, the playing time or the production?
Skiles has been saying for a while that he would like to see more consistency out of Ilyasova, but that can be difficult to obtain when playing time is sporadic. In a recent five game stretch, Ilyasova shot 50% or better three times and twice failed to make a shot on the evening. Something is surely amiss with the game of a forward whose 3-point shooting is desperately needed on a team free of many others with that skill.
One of the others who has that skill is Jennings, though that comes and goes without notice. His 3-point shooting percentage is down to 34.3% this year from 37.4% last season, somewhat offsetting the overall improvement in his shooting percentage, which is up to 39.4% this season from 37.1% last season. The natural improvements in strength and awareness were expected to get Jennings much closer to, if not over, 40% shooting this season and his improvement to 58.3% shooting at the rim can attest to those improvements. If his long range shooting isn’t coming along for the ride though, what does that really mean. Jennings limitations in his size and strength are never going to allow him to get to the rim as often as a guy like Derrick Rose. He needs that outside accuracy more than other point guards.
Aside from that, his play in pick and roll situations has been questionable. As Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward blog pointed out today, Jennings is often going east and west in pick and roll situations, rather than north and south. Even worse, I can probably count on my hand the number of times I’ve seen Jennings pass in a pick and roll this year (less than five if I’m right, and I think I am). I asked Coach Skiles about his guard’s problems with finding big men in pick and rolls this season before Saturday’s game.
“It’s always easy for the coach or the fan even to stop the action right at a split second and say ‘okay we’ve got three guys open, why don’t we see him,” Skiles said. “But when you’re in the game it happens quickly. We have to get better at those decisions, because we do have people open. We do have some shots we’re turning down, our execution needs to get better, all those things. Lets face it, in the real world they get paid to make those plays and we need to do a better job making them.”
Players have to make plays. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? In the case of the Bucks young players, they need to start making the plays everyone thought they would be able to this season, or things could get away from the Bucks quickly.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan of Bucksketball on Facebook (to the right).