To a reporter entering the Milwaukee Bucks locker room after a game, O.J. Mayo comes across as polite and considerate. In a place where clichés fall from the mouths of players the way mouthguards do on the court, Mayo takes time to consider the responses to questions asked of him, rather than spout tired phrases as fast as possible.
After most Bucks games, he’s seated in the chair in front of his locker relaxing when the media enters. It isn’t often he’s surrounded by a quote-seeking hoard; he’s a bench player on a team that only this week crawled above .500 for the first time in over 18 months. There are more intriguing stories all around him. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the league’s most intriguing stories. Jabari Parker is a top draft pick. Brandon Knight leads the team in multiple statistical categories. Larry Sanders is seeking redemption for a season gone wrong.
Mayo is rarely a story.
His lower profile gives him some space and a chance to dress at his leisure. He never appears hurried after games, kind of like how he hasn’t appeared hurried on the court much this season. He seems content.
Mayo is a young veteran, in his second season with the Bucks. His first one was a disaster. Outsiders can’t figure out exactly what went wrong for him, or the Bucks really, under Larry Drew a year ago. He was heavier. He cited a team without direction or preferred style. His production slipped and he didn’t live up to the expectations placed on him by the fans and media alike. It was a bad year for everyone in Milwaukee.
But this season is different. Mayo is back to being a role player. He’s coming off the bench. Everything is more defined now too, from the understanding of who may play on any given night to what Milwaukee is looking to accomplish every night offensively and defensively. Everything has a place, you know? Mayo still won’t let us in on exactly how things have changed so drastically from last season to this one though, because he won’t acknowledge last season.
“Man you know, I’d love to answer that question, but my amnesia is really bad when it comes to stuff like that,” Mayo said when I asked what’s changed. Of course he did. Since he first spoke with reporters this season the day after media day, he’s said that last season is behind him and he won’t discuss it. “All I can do is look forward.”
So allow me the chance to look back at last season. We know a huge difference has been how the team’s reacted to Jason Kidd. We know guys like Giannis and Parker are providing energy. We know Sanders and Knight are both having better seasons. But there’s another underlying factor that appears to matter: the veterans.
Us fans, we kind of cast them aside. We care about the guys who are next. Hell, I wrote off Jerryd Bayless before he even arrived. The Bucksketball Comment section demanded answers regarding Jared Dudley‘s presence in the starting lineup after he replaced Khris Middleton for a while. We joke about Ersan Ilyasova trades constantly. If you’re not a part of the SOLUTION, the one on the blueprint in a few years from now when the Bucks plan to become one of the league’s best teams, you’re a part of the problem, veteran basketball player.
But maybe these guys are contributing more than we realize. Numbers wise, they aren’t necessarily blowing away last year’s group of veterans, but this year’s veteran reserves are, at the very least, matching the offensive production of last season’s veterans, while shooting with more efficiency and, possibly most importantly, not doing everything they can to escape the city of Milwaukee’s cold, dark clutches.
Obviously, Milwaukee is a significantly improved defensive team too, and these guys have been part of that. But none of them, with the exception of Mayo and maybe Gary Neal last season, were brought to Milwaukee because the expectation of being a big-time producer. The little things, that’s where these guys are supposed to shine. Dudley mentioned in passing Tuesday night something about how he knew he had to talk a lot on defense when he was on the court with Milwaukee’s young, offensively bent starters. I asked if what he felt like he most brought to the table was his vocalness on defense.
“Definitely. I think I help them out defensively, putting them in the right places,” Dudley said of his younger teammates after Tuesday night’s win over the Knicks. “For me, those guys (Jabari, Giannis, young players in general), they gotta learn, so you gotta put them in the fire. (Coach Sean) Sweeney helps them and I try and talk to them. They can only learn through mistakes. Jabari has already improved from where he was two, three games ago.”
As the Bucks have slowly embraced rebuilding over the past two seasons, they’ve looked for the right mix of young players and veterans. They wanted to bring in guys who could still contribute as players, but who could help their young players establish good habits in their transition to the NBA lifestyle. Generally, the role of “veteran leader” is tough to define and even more difficult to measure. Maybe it’s one of those things that we know when we see it. Or maybe it’s one of those things that only exists on teams that are harmonious. We look for answers and we place labels on things we can’t quite define because it gives us a sense of why things are going well.
Whether we’re imagining it or not, whether we’re only seeing it because the Bucks are doing well or whether the Bucks are doing well in part because of it, it sure seems that guys like Mayo and Dudley are making an impact with their teammates in a positive way. It’s evident on most nights, but Wednesday night’s wild triple overtime win sure was a good one.
Over and over I watched Mayo put an arm around a teammate that had made an error or instruct guys on what they were supposed to be doing or offering words of encouragement. Zaza Pachulia was left holding the ball with little time on the shot clock and had to force up an ugly drive that resulted in a badly missed layup. When he returned to the bench for a timeout, Mayo was the first one to greet him with a hug, but then Mayo addressed his teammates, arm around Zaza before the coaches could get to the huddle. He was speaking up, like leaders do.
Aside from that, both Mayo and Dudley have been more than willing to come off the bench, move the ball and give effort on defense.
“In the NBA you kind of have to give back,” Dudley said. “G-Hill (Grant Hill) gave back to me and so did Nash, they tried to help me get some wisdom. I am trying to pass on what they passed to me to Jabari and Giannis because they play my position.”
Dudley’s approach to being on the court with his young, offensively gifted teammates sounds genuinely refreshing. Yes, he’s struggled with his shot and failed to produce much, no one can argue that. But on the plus side, he’s not Gary Neal, searching for a place to shoot a jumper the second he catches the ball. He knows his role and he’s accepted it. He even told me he prefers coming off the bench. That’s the atmosphere in Milwaukee right now.
“You see that everyone is having fun,” he said. “Coach Kidd plays a style where he plays a lot of guys. As a player you can respect that and it makes you want to play even harder.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I looked at the same numbers you’re looking at in the chart above. I can see that Jared Dudley hasn’t been very good when he’s played this year. And all of the talking and instructing in the world doesn’t make up for a guy who isn’t hitting his shots or creating much havoc himself defensively. Don’t misconstrue this article as a plea for Dudley to return to the starting lineup and an expansion of his minutes. Whatever value he brings pales in comparison to the real, measurable on court impact of a guy like Khris Midddleton. I totally get it.
But isn’t there some value in a guy who is willing to be complacent with a minor role on a young team? Dudley’s only playing 20 minutes per game and I got the sense he wouldn’t cause a ruckus if he was playing less and the team continued to succeed. Over his past five games, Dudley’s down to about 17 minutes per game. As Milwaukee’s younger players continue to improve and continue to gain a grasp on where they are supposed to be, it feels like the Bucks could comfortably slot Dudley in for 10-15 minutes, especially if his 3-point shot starts to drop again.
Anyway, it’s fun to see a veteran excited to be on the Bucks again.
Mayo seemed just as excited. “Mayo” “seemed” and “excited” are three words no one could have written consecutively at any point last season, with the possible exception of the last game of the year. This year? All he can talk about is getting better and the future.
“As you can see, we’re definitely getting better, we’re definitely learning,” Mayo said. “We have a young team here. Me, being 26 to be considered a veteran, we’re young and were trying to get better. Every week we’re tying to get better. Every day in practice we’re trying to get better. We’re trying to get better with one another, we’re trying to get better with our team, with our system with our keys to win games.”
“We’re trying to get better man and that’s the main thing.”