The Runner Sports

Milwaukee Bucks Roster Preview: Ball handlers

With the NBA preseason at hand, and the regular season fast approaching, we’re spending some time diving into the details of the Milwaukee Bucks’ roster. We’ll run through players one-by-one, across three large buckets. Given the Bucks’ proclivity for positional fluidity, we’ve decided to take on a less traditional mindset, opting to separate the roster into bigs, wings, and ball handlers.

You’ll notice that some players fall into multiple categories. Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example, will be included in all three. We’ll break down the merits of each player, specific to the position in discussion.

Today we’re covering ball handlers, those players capable of initiating offense off the bounce. Ball handlers generally use a significant amount of their possessions orchestrating the pick and roll and attacking in isolation. Traditionally a team’s point guard is also it’s de facto primary ball handler, but the Bucks are leading the charge on challenging on more normative basketball philosophies. This list reflects that reality, and includes a number of non-traditional ball handling options, starting with the team’s superstar.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks using Antetokounmpo as a primary ball handler is one of the more enjoyable realities in all the NBA. He was average scoring the ball in the pick and roll and isolation last year, posting 0.81 and 0.77 points per possession rates in each play type respectively. That’s good for a player his age, and bordering on outrageous for a player his size.

Giannis led the team in possessions as a pick and roll ball handler and isolation option. Outside of Kevin Durant, that’s uncommon for someone so tall. Most players their height lack the type of coordination and quickness needed to do any real damage off the bounce. Giannis is no Kevin Durant, but he’s jaw-droppingly impressive in his own way. His strides cover unfathomable distance, and he’s so long and springy that any time he gets in the paint it almost always results in a dunk or an easy layup.

Antetokounmpo isn’t a very good shooter, and he definitely has room to grow as a facilitator. He’ll need to improve in both regards if he wants to be a truly elite-level talent with the ball in his hands, but the mere fact we’re even discussing either of those things is a little crazy. Giannis has all the skills, right now, to be the best big man in basketball (see the “bigs” edition of our roster review series), but the Bucks are opting to push the boundaries of what he is able to on the court. That’s smart. If he becomes an above average scorer as a shooter and ball handler then it’s a wrap, and Giannis is the best player on earth.

Malcolm Brogdon

Malcolm Brogdon is steady, really, in all facets of his game, but particularly as a ball handler. He’ll explode to the hoop from time to time, but isn’t very dynamic off the bounce, lacking the juice to blow by stout on-ball defenders. That’s not ideal for most team contexts, but Brogdon’s low-turnover, team-friendly style is a perfect fit in Milwaukee.

Brogdon can handle bringing the ball up, dump things off to Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, or Khris Middleton to do the heavy lifting of creation, and let his sweet shooting provide the majority of his value. He can credibly run a pick and roll in a pinch, and is taking lessons from the Yoda of posting up smaller guards — Jason Kidd. If Giannis can improve as a shooter, the Bucks will be able to invert the floor, spotting up around Brogdon as he uses his size to attack smaller defenders.

That’s not really all that pertinent to how he plays as a ball handler, but it’s a lot of fun to think about.

Jabari Parker

Parker joins Antetokounmpo as the only player to land on all three of our roster previews (ball handlers, bigs, and wings). Sadly, Parker’s identity as a ball handler is more of a dream than a reality. He flashed some serious ability to get to the rim before suffering his second knee injury last year.

Parker has a unique blend of agility, power, and slipperiness (not a technical term). He’s simultaneously capable of going around you or going through you, and when he’s really cooking, deciding to switch between the two options mid-drive.

At his best, Parker has enough talent to play any role offensively, picking and choosing how to attack based on who is defending him. In that sense, he is truly positionless. That is to say, he can simply take on a different positional identity based on how his opponents choose to defend him. Match him up with a big, and Parker will shake and bake his way to the hoop. Opt for a quicker wing, and he’ll put a shoulder in his chest and clear out space. The breadth of his offensive repertoire is his greatest asset, at least in theory. Parker hasn’t been able to stay on the court long enough to really know what he is as a player.

Khris Middleton

Khris Middleton didn’t post the most impressive numbers as a ball handler in the pick and roll or isolation last year, but he’s an interesting tool in the Bucks’ proverbial belt, and he’s proven capable of filling both roles previously in his career. Middleton was returning from a significant injury during the 2016-17 campaign, and he never reached quite the same level of play he’d demonstrated prior to getting hurt.

A lot of that likely had to do with conditioning, and there is some hope in that reality. Middleton is good enough to be more than just a spot-up shooter who can attack closeouts. Assuming he comes into the year at full health, the Bucks should allow him to function as something of a secondary offensive hub. If it turns out his injuries have altered his ability permanently, they can always slide Parker into that role later in the year.

Matthew Dellavedova

Matthew Dellavedova is a ball handler in the sense that he’s capable of bringing the ball up the court or running through a pick and roll without handing to the other team. He’s not a legitimate threat to score turning the corner around screens and isn’t fit to attack defenders in isolation. In those senses, he really plays more like a wing.

Dellavedova frequently defends opponents’ ball handlers though, so we’re going to include him in this group instead. The positional distinctions we’ve created for this exercise fall apart a bit for players, like Dellavedova, whose greatest strength is being a pain in the ass on defense. Since he applies that primarily to opposing point guards, this feels right.

In any case, Dellavedova, when he’s at his best, is a limited athlete, rough around the edges shooter, who throws a nice lob if he can draw enough attention from helping bigs, and makes life hell for whomever he’s been tasked with bothering on the other end. He’s a helpful low-minutes contributor in almost any context, though not nearly worth the four-year/$38 million contract Milwaukee granted him last summer.

Jason Terry

Jason Terry probably deserves his very own positional distinction. He’s really just a shooter and a source of veteran wisdom at this point of his career. Theoretically, he could shoulder ball handling duties in a pinch, but the less pressure the Bucks put on his body the better, and functioning as a floor spacer is substantially less demanding than creating offense off the dribble.

Jason Kidd played Terry more than was to be expected last year, so there may be reason that he could get similar minutes on a similar roster, but Milwaukee is likely hoping that one of the team’s younger players will develop into a competent enough option to supplant him in the depth chart. He would likely handle that in stride. Terry is a confident leader at the end of the bench, ready to play at a moments notice, but unperturbed by stretches of inactivity. That’s a valuable player to have around, even if his level of production is limited.

Rashad Vaughn

Rashad Vaughn hasn’t been very good since landing with Milwaukee in the 2015 draft. He flashed an impressive ability to get to the tin in the team’s first preseason game, but that won’t mean anything until he can prove he can do so consistently. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that Vaughn will develop into a particularly useful ball handler this year, but he’s included here because the theoretical best-case scenario version of him is capable of shouldering such duties.

Kendall Marshall/Gary Payton II/Sterling Brown

We won’t spend too much time on these players. Marshall and Payton seem like long shots to be with the team beyond preseason, and Brown doesn’t look quite ready to do more than strive to be a 3-and-D type player just yet.

Greg Cassoli

Greg Cassoli is a contributor at TRS, covering the Milwaukee Bucks. He's an ardent supporter of three-point shooting, good defense, and positionless basketball.