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The Bucks’ Summer League squad brought in lots of faces from lots of places… and a lot of shoes to boot. (Photo: Bucks.com)

As of last Tuesday morning, everything in the Milwaukee basketball universe beamed brightly. In Estonia, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a major role in leading Greece to six consecutive wins in the FIBA Europe Under-20 Championship.  The Summer Bucks had sewn together back-to-back wins in their first two outings in Las Vegas.  John Henson showed flashes of Alcindor.  The Bucks were poised for off-season exhibition dominance.

Things fell apart quickly.

The Summer Bucks lost to the Warriors, Lakers, and Spurs in succession.  Giannis ceased being the Greek Freak in two straight losses in qualifying play (1 point, 0 assists, 4 TOs) then the quarterfinals (5 points, 2/6 FG, 3 rebounds, 0 assists).

Of course, the situation isn’t as cheery or as dire as either extreme.  The less-experienced Bucks all got a chance to ply their trade in extended summer minutes, and here is a quick recap of how the Las Vegas side of the Bucks performed.

John Henson

Since the 1997-98 season — Michael Jordan’s last NBA title and last season with the Bulls — no NBA player has averaged 5.0 offensive rebounds per game.  (Elton Brand of the Clippers came closest in 2001-02 when he averaged 4.96.)

John Henson has that type of potential, and his far-reaching talents are the reason why it was fashionable among fine writers (1, 2, 3) to discuss his dominating exploits for the week.

Consider the numbers: Henson played three of the five Bucks summer games. In 27 minutes per game, Henson averaged 5.0 offensive rebounds per game.  It would be easy to dismiss it as ‘just Summer League’, but it’s not out of whack with Henson’s normal modus operandi.  In his rookie season, Henson averaged 5.0 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, and if he had played enough minutes to qualify, his offensive rebounding percentage (14.5%) would have been third best in the NBA.

When combined with his 7’6″ wingspan and his other standout skills — a soft touch around the rim and footwork good enough to get him in place to use it — it’s not hard to see why Henson posted stats (14.7 ppg, 13.7 rpg, 54.8% shooting) worth gushing about.

But there’s also a reason that Henson only played just over 13 minutes per game in just 61 games last season.  No one doubted his ability to finish at the rim and reach over opponents to create extra possessions.  His problems arose in other areas: free throw shooting, maintaining a boxout against bulkier opponents, and most importantly, being able to rotate quickly in the paint as the last line of his team’s defense.

Did Henson improve in these other areas? I think he did.  In a small sample, his free throw shooting went up compared to last year (0.667 vs. 0.533).  He used his added bulk to finish second in the LVSL in defensive rebounds per game.  Even though he occasionally looked off balance by the time he warded off his opponent and snagged the ball, he still had possession of the ball.  And while his defensive rotations weren’t perfect, he was getting where he needed to be more often than not, and in the process, he slapped away nine blocks in the three games.

15 turnovers blemished Henson’s marvelous week. Perhaps it’s fair to chalk those up to being the focal point of an offense full of fresh faces since it wasn’t a problem that plagued him last year.  If true, Henson is poised for a breakout sophomore season.

Ish Smith

Coming off a disastrous playoff series against the Heat, Smith put together a savvy Summer League on the down low

The per-game numbers are less than gaudy:  20.8 minutes, 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 39% FG.  But despite the stats, Ish had about as good a Summer League as one might expect while doing a lot of non-boxscore things.

He played defense. He made smart decisions on when to use his push the tempo and when to ease back.  When probing a defense with his dribble in a halfcourt set, he made the right calls on when to attack and when to reset.  He even played the pick-and-pop game with John Shurna and cagily fed his best shooter the ball in optimal spots.  All in all, he played like a veteran point guard.

Of course, Smith’s lack of size and shooting ability will probably keep him from ever being much more than the third-string point guard.  If he plays like he did in Vegas, he’ll fill that role well and stick in the league for a few more seasons.

Gustavo Ayon

If Ayon had taken the Summer League experience for college credit, his grade would be an ‘incomplete’.  A groin injury kept him from out of two games and he played just 59 minutes overall.

Ayon averaged 6.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on 63.6% shooting from the field, but the style of his game was remarkable for how truly unremarkable it was.  Gustavo never stood out on the court as a 28-year-old veteran in an assembly of players with far less experience.  He was never the go-to guy on offense, and the Bucks used Henson far more often as the screener in the pick and roll.

Ayon recently noted that he would have greater opportunity for minutes in a situation where he was one of six bigs instead of one of nine.  Will John Hammond give him that chance?  Hammond has until Thursday to decide whether or not to guarantee the Ayon’s $1.5 million salary for the upcoming season.  If Ayon does get dropped, his grand Vegas disappearing act probably had a hand in the decision.

Nate Wolters

Wolters shot a Brandon Jennings-like 40% in Summer League, but he did it in very un-Jennings-like fashion.

The Bucks’ second-round acquisition put a number of offensive skills on display.  He showed the ability to finish in the paint –especially in his 20-point game to close out the week.  When the Bucks used Wolters as the pick-and-roll ballhandler, Wolters typically did one of four things:

  1. Threaded a pass to his roll man.
  2. Kept it on the drive before kicking the ball out to an open shooter.
  3. Eased up mid-lane for a soft floater.
  4. Drove to the lane for a layup tossed high off the glass.

His college instincts drove him to do more of #3 and #4, and he’ll have to be coached into realizing that the greater efficiency of doing more of the first two against NBA-caliber defenses.

But after years of watching Jennings, it was… refreshing.  Of course, Jennings has much, MUCH better touch from the outside, and Wolters was playing in a league of wannabes.  But glimpses are glimpses and it’s not too difficult to envision Wolters running the point in the NBA soon.  An improved jumper would make it a near certainty.

On defense, Wolters moved his feet to stay in front of his defensive assignment and got his hands on a lot of balls, even if he didn’t necessarily come away with the steals.

One area in which he needs to improve: transition defense.  When teams flew out for even- or odd-numbered fast breaks, Wolters had a tendency to sit back too far under the hoop and do a whole lot of not very much.  He’ll end up on a lot of posters that way.  He needs to either try to draw a charge, gamble for a steal or give a hard foul. Or perhaps even try to get up and contest the shot.  But he needs to do something.

Dominique Jones

Watching Jones toil for the Summer Bucks, it wasn’t hard to figure out why he was a first-round pick or why he had only played a total of 741 minutes in three seasons.  Jones can’t shoot a lick, but with his strength and speed, it’s almost irrelevant, because he will bully his way through the paint anyway (or get fouled doing so). His skills off the dribble help him create open looks for his teammates, and he’s willing to share.  For every crisp pass to a teammate, though, there’s one that careens away helplessly to the other team.

Jones goes hard to the rim both on the fast break and in set offenses.  He went to the free throw line a team-high 29 times and converted 25 of them.  For the week, he averaged 11.0 points (40% FG), 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 3.0 turnovers.

For a team that lost Monta Ellis to the Mavericks this offseason as a free agent, there was a certain symmetry to them acquiring the Summer League version of Monta from Dallas. Jones could definitely stick around for the season as a “Monta-lite” substitute.