It was kind of hard to figure out what the Milwaukee Bucks were doing this offseason.
Allowing their entire backcourt rotation of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick to leave via free agency seemed to indicate a rebuilding project was about to begin. Jennings and Redick brought youngsters and draft picks in sign-and-trades, reinforcing that premise.
Then GM John Hammond used his newfound cap space on middle-tier free agents O.J. Mayo, Zaza Pachulia and Carlos Delfino before dropping a big contract extension on Larry Sanders, which seemed to indicate that contending for a playoff spot was the goal.
With 10 new players and a new coach in Larry Drew, continuity appeared to be of paramount importance. But the Bucks have been hit hard by injuries, and the season is quickly unraveling.
Sanders, viewed as the defensive backbone, has yet to play after hurting his thumb in a bar fight. Delfino was lost for the year. Projected starters Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Knight have missed considerable time with injuries. Key reserves Pachulia, Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal also have been hurt.
As a result, the Bucks are 6-22, the worst record in the NBA. However, there has been a silver lining in the dreary clouds over Milwaukee.
All of their injuries have given Drew no choice but to play his kids.
In addition to the emergence of second-year forward Khris Middleton, the Bucks have played all three of their rookies big minutes, which has created obvious growing pains this season but could pay dividends down the road.
With point guards Knight and Ridnour hurt early this season, Drew had no choice but to give the handle to second-round pick Nate Wolters, who has struggled with his long-range shooting but has shown he understands ball delivery and security. His numbers are better than those of Ridnour, an 11-year veteran.
First-round pick Giannis Antetokounmpo, considered a project by most and a reach by some, also was forced into the rotation by injuries to Butler and Neal. The “Greek Freak” has seen his minutes increase gradually. He now is starting and doing a little bit of everything from the wing, leaving an impression on opponents.
“He looked like he was going to be a special talent then,” said Cleveland coach Mike Brown, who recalled him from the Las Vegas Summer League. “You see the potential. He’s got a lot of intelligence and a great feel for the game.”
And this week, a third rookie has emerged in Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica. The 25-year-old played for European mainstays Efes Pilsen and Partizan Belgrade in recent years before the Bucks signed him to a three-year, $4.6 million contract this summer.
Through his first 18 games, Raduljica had 10 points and 11 DNPs. But the injuries to Sanders, Pachulia and Ilyasova have allowed him to move into the starting lineup as well, and Raduljica has responded with a nice stretch of games.
Folks in Beertown shouldn’t get too excited. All three rookies have a lot to learn, especially on the defensive end, where each has a rating approaching 110. Wolters and Raduljica potentially project as rotation reserves, while Antetokounmpo’s ceiling is extremely high – which it should be for a 6-9 shooting guard.
The trio is costing the Bucks less than $4 million this season, and all three are under team control through the 2015-16 season. Playing time will only make them better. And if it happens to make the Bucks worse, then perhaps Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle will be lining up with them next season.
On to the rankings.