Value in Vegas: A look at the key Bucks from Summer League

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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:

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.

Categories: Summer League

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  1. Seemed to me that Ish was fantastic, about ten times faster than Nate Wolters and about ten times better handling the ball than Brandon. I actually think he could be a good starter in this league, and I think his shooting will develop if he concentrates more and focuses his eyes on the rim.
    Also, the Bucks should sign the unheralded Scott Suggs who in limited playing time seemed to handle himself well on the court in all phases of the game — and who can do something that perhaps no player on even our regular-season team can do: create his own shot off the dribble. In crunch-time against San Antonio, Suggs hit two beautiful medium-range jumpers off the bounce against tight defense. At a height of about six-six, he’s fills an important role as a scoring swingman; he’s a sleeper of a keeper.
    If I’m not crazy enough so far, let me add that we should also sign Mike Bruesewitz, who does all the little things like tip out a missed shot for an extra possession or dive on the floor in traffic for a loose ball and then pass it to a teammate for a lay-up. He also hit about three-of-four from behind the arc, which puts him over the top as another keeper for the Bucks.
    I’d let the rest of the guys go with best wishes, including Gustavo and probably Nate Wolters — who I think only hit one shot outside of fifteen feet in five games.
    Really enjoyed the summer league, despite some choppy and awkward play. Of course John Henson was fantastic, but it’s also fun to look for the less-noticed guys who could make a big difference for the Bucks: Ish the Fish (quick, slippery, darting), Suggsy, and the Brueser. Really!

  2. happyfeethustle

    Good article …. sounds like we have enough up an coming talent to be competitive in 13/14.

    If Ish can improve his shooting ability-why not give him a chance to start. He’s tiny and lightning quick, the kind of point guard that frustrates the heck out of opponents- like Ty Lawson, J.J. Barea, even
    Earl Boykins. There is a legitimate use for these mighty mite size guards. His small size is an ASSET if used correctly


  3. Randall Delaney

    I don’t think Ish can be a starter. And I think Wolters could be a great steal. If we are able to develop Giannis over the next couple of years, along with Wolters, Henson, and Sanders we could have 4 starters that could be great and actually want to stay in Milwaukee! Imagine that! If Mayo works out and we get some great depth with all of these draft picks I think the “rebuilding” everyone mentions can actually be done while the Bucks still sneak into the playoffs. That is the thinking of John Hammond, and I love it. Maybe I’m the only one in Wisconsin, but I don’t care! Would you rather make the playoffs once in the next five years and lose in the Eastern Conference finals that one year, or make the playoffs all five years (8th seed or not) and in year 6 be on the brink of a championship? It’s okay to be mediocre and take risks and try to build a team at the same time. I still think the Bucks have a couple of moves left in them this summer, too!

  4. I don’t think Ish is a capable starter…yet. Not when you have Ridnour. I assume Jennings will be back via QO. I’d be okay with Bringing Brandon in off the bench. Let his “swag” run wild over a team’s 2nd unit for 15-20 mins a night. I’m still kind of anxious to see the Bucks fill out this roster.

  5. Ish reminds me of Smush Parker, nothing special, but serviceable. The kind of player the NBA needs, even if Kobe detests them. Ish is what you’d be left with if you used a machine to drain Jennings of his swagger. He’s still short and can’t shoot, but the fact that he knows that makes me more comfortable with him as a Bucks point than Jennings.

    I actually don’t mind a Ridnour/Smith/Wolters platoon this upcoming season. Ridnour’s savvy is underrated and he’s long been a favorite of mine. We won’t have our “point guard of the future”, as Smith and Wolters have no starter potential, but forcing the issue with Jennings seems like the wrong move.

    • Not to single you out, but I don’t understand the wide spread dislike for Wolters. Give the kid some time, yo.

  6. See this is what keeps intrigue in the Milwaukee Bucks…young players. The unknown is captivating. This is why the tank would still draw interest because people would tap in to see how players are progressing. Older players with no upside loses intrigue because you know what you are getting. Ill be tuning in a little bit next year to the Magic and Suns just to see how Bledsoe and Harris do, even tho their individual teams suck

  7. Because I’m bored, I’ve cobbled together a 15-man rotation for the Bucks next year, with the following things needing to happen first:

    – re-sign Jennings (whatever, just do it already)
    – sign Giannis, keep him here, but don’t worry about giving him any minutes
    – sign Dominique Jones (extra deep bench scoring), Mike Bruesewitz (need a beloved former Badger for the kids) from Summer League team

    So then…

    Sanders – Pachulia/Ayon/Udoh/Brues
    Henson – Udoh/Ayon/Breus
    Ilyasova – Delfino/Jones/Giannis
    Mayo – Ridnour/Delfino/Jones/Wolters
    Jennings – Ridnour/Ish/Wolters

    Put another way…


    It could be a lot worse. I think that team would be entertaining, competitive, and nowhere near good enough to take the Bucks too far away from where the best players will be drafted next year. Most of these guys are young, hungry, expectation-free and ready to be taught, there’s potential at the end of the bench with the drafted rookies waiting their turn, we’ve got our own Scalabrine-type chemistry guy…I’d be perfectly fine with this for next year. Hope something like it happens.

    After last season, anyway, it’d be refreshing.

    • except in the ocassional freak matchup, ilyasova can’t play 3. period. not happening. hopefully we do see a lot of giannis.

      the zaza signing is still just utterly baffling…not because i hate zaza as a player, but because you can shake zazas out of the trees around the league and we gave him 15 mil over 3 years…by no means crippling but truly nonsense.

      it warms my heart to see all the wolters lovers out there, hopefully you are all correct

      • IMO Gus would of gave us the same if not more than ZILLA at about 3mill cheaper a year!!! We waived him today and just like Tobias someone will actually give him a chance and he will become a solid #2 center off the bench!

  8. I’m rooting for Nate Wolters, but am interested in why people are so high on him. As I saw him in the Summer League, he hit only one shot outside of fifteen feet in five games, and he was rather slow bringing the ball up the court. In other words, he wasn’t the sharpshooter we want at two guard nor the ballhandler we want at point. I was truly disappointed, because I was excited when we traded for him after the draft. I realize that Summer League is a short audition, but I’m wondering what others are seeing in Wolters. I’d be very happy if he becomes a good player for the Bucks, and wish him the best.

    • I wish Wolters the best and I too like to see all the positive support, but sadly he proved in summer league that he lacks NBA speed for a guard. He’ll probably play D-League this year, and maybe the young man can find minutes and a rhythm there.

    • Because he is from a small school and most guys struggle in the summer league.. Wolters has talent and with time IMO he will be a starter in the NBA in a couple of years!

  9. Wolters needs a couple of years to actually become NBA ready..that is why he was a 2nd round draft pick. Also the kid was a 3rd team All-American, and would have probably been 2nd team if it wasn’t for the conference he was in…over his career he has gotten substantially better at rebounding, shooting, and stealing which is what you look for in a point guard. his assists numbers have always been there. I don’t think there is any question this guy will be a good player. Will he be a chris pual like it seems a lot of you guys are expecting him to play up to? Absolutely not. Could he be a highly productive player in the future? Absolutely. Don’t forget either, Wolters was compared to Steve Nash a lot in college. He hasn’t played a single NBA minute fellas. Give him a chance!

  10. Uh, you have got to stop watching these games with rose colored glasses on.
    Let me help you: Nate Wolters will never be as good as Ridnour, who we stupidly resigned.
    Ish Smith is another in a series of Shetland point guards, like Brandon and Monta who cannot cover anybody.
    This team is the most boring on the planet. The will finish in the 9th spot, just out of the playoffs and a good pick. They will most certainly sign and over-pay Brandon, who doesn’t wanna be here.
    Two words for 2013-14: start tanking.