The one question that seemed like it needed answering more than any last season, a season spent on player development and moving away from the idea of just making the playoffs being good enough, was whether or not Brandon Knight had what it took to be a point guard in the NBA. After a season long commitment to the ball being in his hands, Bucks fans came away from the season with the definitive answer of … who knows.
But does anyone feel like we’re any closer to knowing whether or not Knight is Milwaukee’s point guard of the future? I suppose that the question still has to be posed could be seen as evidence that he isn’t, which is a fair response. Frank Madden at Brew Hoop did a great job delving into the question and our own
KL Chouinard has long done a great job on #KNIGHTWATCH. But I thought I’d try my hand at figuring out if Knight could lead a team or at least if a point guard like Knight could lead a good offense.
Only 17 regulars (players who played at least 10 games with a team) averaged more than 80 touches per game last season. Naturally, these guys were largely point guards or players tasked with ball-handling duties. John Wall, Kemba Walker, Chris Paul, Brandon Jennings - the names were obvious ones, with a few logical non-point guard offensive centerpieces mixed in like Joakim Noah and Kevin Love. Knight was one of the qualifying members of this list. Hooray for him and hooray for the Bucks for actually making sure the ball was in his hands quite a bit in his test year. Of course, he was, by default, the team’s most capable offensive player, which speaks to what the roster was like last season.
To think, for a few years Bucks fans envisioned what it would be like if Jennings could become a better finisher and boost his field goal percentage comfortably above 40%. Last season, Bucks fans essentially got to see what that was like. It wasn’t all that different than watching the Brandon Jennings that occasionally dazzled, but more often frustrated in Milwaukee for four seasons.
While Knight attacked the basket more and with greater success, he was almost a carbon copy of Jennings as a pull-up shooter. Knight averaged 6.2 pull-up shot attempts per game and connected on just 35.1% of his attempts, while Jennings attempted 7.4 pull-ups per game and made just 34.9% of his. While both players averaged over 80 touches per game, neither managed more than 60 passes per game (Knight 59.4 passes, Jennings 59.9). These fancy stats weren’t available when Jennings was in Milwaukee, but based on the eye test and all of the other numbers we have, it seems like this data isn’t out of line with what Jennings would have been producing in Milwaukee.
And the result of an offense being led by a point guard with a shaky shot and a tendency to dominate the ball? Rough again. For the fourth time in five seasons, Milwaukee finished in the NBA’s bottom third in offensive rating (26th).
So can we conclude that an offense led by a guard in the general ilk of Knight and Jennings is doomed?
If that guard is the best player on the offense and responsible for being the primary scorer? The outlook isn’t good. But if that guard is a cog in a bigger offensive picture where he’s sharing the playmaking duties and deferring to another star? Well, look to the Portland Trailblazers for a more promising outcome.
Damian Lillard’s touches, passing and drive/pull-up numbers aren’t all that far off from the Knight/Jennings class (84 touches, 7.6 drives – 40.4% shooting, 6.1 pull-ups – 38.4%, 60.8 passes), yet the Blazers still managed to finish the season with the league’s second best offensive rating. How’d they do it? Lillard was a much better 3-point shooter than either Jennings or Knight (39.4% for Lillard compared to 33.7% for Jennings and 32.5% for Knight), Lamarcus Aldridge was a terrific offensive pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop partner for Lillard, Nicolas Batum handled a fair share of initiating and ball-moving on offense, and Wesley Matthews and the role players on Portland did a great job making 3-pointers.
Not to say Knight is as good as Lillard. He isn’t. Lillard is better in the pick and roll game. He’s better in isolation. He’s better at a lot of things than Knight, who, as the piece by KL I linked to before indicates, is still figuring out how to use both hands and find spacing in the NBA. But a big part of Lillard’s success has to do with his superiority as a 3-point shooter and another big part is the teammates around him that require a different sort of attention. Those things make a huge difference in how he’s guarded and how successful he is in the half court. My larger point though is that there are some similarities to how they behave in an offense.
With a hybrid guard who doesn’t play with a hell-bent determination toward setting up his teammates, the supporting cast being a good fit seems all the more important. Kyrie Irving is another guard who touched the ball a lot, didn’t pass quite so much and watched his season explode around him thanks to teammates who either weren’t a good fit or just weren’t good.
Ultimately, it seems fine if Brandon Knight continues to play this hybrid guard style of offense. It doesn’t mean he can’t be a successful lead guard in the NBA or that his teams are forever doomed to be middling to bad offensively. But if he’s going to keep playing it this way and make it work, he’ll need a much better cast around him and he’ll probably need to revert to the quality of 3-point shooter he was in Detroit rather than the one he was last season. His opportunities may continue to come off the dribble rather than off the catch for at least one more season, so his 3-point shooting may not bounce back all the way, but if he can improve there and rely on guys like Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo to help him out as a playmaker, Milwaukee could see a nice offensive boost next season.
Even if they’re still playing with a point guard no one is really sure about.