Every team needs a Sterling Brown

As an undrafted rookie, Wesley Matthews not only worked his way into a starting spot, but earned the task of defending Los Angeles Lakers guard, and future Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant, during the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals.

Fast forward nearly 10 years and Matthews is still starting, now for the Milwaukee Bucks, and still playing the role of hard-nosed defender. However, nowadays, veteran and mentor are words used to describe his mannerisms and role on the team.

Matthews, meet Sterling Brown.

Brown was a late second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2017, and traded on draft night to Milwaukee for cash.

Now in his third season, Brown doesn’t regularly put up numbers that will make headlines or look glamorous on your fantasy basketball team. But he has consistently played his role, hitting shots when called upon, and defending and rebounding with relentless drive.

“One of the first words that comes out of my mouth when we talk about Sterling is his toughness,” head coach Mike Budenholzer said after Brown snatched 10 rebounds in a win over the Detroit Pistons. “Doesn’t matter if he is guarding a big guy, who it is, he just has a toughness, plays with a toughness. We put him on (Andre) Drummond for a stretch tonight.

“We want our team to kind of embody that, play like that. He has just been great.”

Last year when the Bucks played Detroit during the first round of the playoffs, Brown set his career high for rebounds at 13.

Matthews said after the game that he told Brown “a couple of days ago” that he reminded him of a younger version of himself.

“(Brown) is one of those guys that just competes,” Matthews added. “He battles. He’s going to do all of the dirty stuff that doesn’t necessarily show in the box scores, and he’s going to do stuff that does show up in the box score.

“He’s one of those guys that every team needs.”

Since Khris Middleton went down with a thigh injury, Brown is averaging 22 minutes per game. Although he still comes off-of-the-bench, he has meshed well with the starters when he subs in early in games. Against the Pistons on Saturday he posted a +23 in 22 minutes of action.

After joking that Brown probably hadn’t grabbed 10 rebounds since high school, Giannis Antetokounmpo approved, and appreciates, his teammate’s effort.

“Having a guy like Sterling rebound the ball, it’s big,” Antetokounmpo said. “We definitely need guys who can come back and help me and Brook (Lopez). Especially Donte (DiVincenzo) and Sterling, great job with that. Definitely they got to keep it going. We definitely need them to keep it going.

“We need guys like that, that are going to try to dive for the ball and try to go get it.”

Listed at 6-foot-5, Brown is averaging nearly six boards per game this season. His season high is 11, recorded at Orlando in the second game of the year.

“He goes and gobbles up boards,” Budenholzer added. “When it’s in the air he goes and gets it, he has a knack for it. He’s a unique kind of tool to have in your tool box.”

Bledsoe: I think (Giannis) can average a triple-double

Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t shoot the ball particularly well against the Portland Trailblazers.

He was 9-of-27 from the floor, just one-of-seven from beyond the three point line and missed five of his 10 free throw attempts.

That’s why the following statement may sound hyperbolic, or simply insane, but truthfully it’s neither.

Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday night win over the Damian Lillard-less Blazers.

The reigning league MVP scored 24 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and dished out a career high 15 assists.

“He’s underrated (as a distributor),” Eric Bledsoe said of Antetokounmpo’s overall game. “He does a great job of feeling out the defense. Every game is different, they always pack the paint and somehow he always finds a way to score 30.

“You just got to rely on your team some nights and he did a hell of a job tonight doing that. That says for most superstars, most superstars don’t distribute when you have to and he did a great of that.”

Antetokounmpo really plays position-less basketball. Often times he’ll bring the ball up the floor, but you can also find him dominating the paint. For the sake of an official roster, he’s listed as a forward. And as a forward, tonight’s stat line puts him in some elite company.

“On the night I couldn’t get going offensively, shots weren’t falling, they were showing a lot of crowds, that’s what I try to, I try to find my teammates,” Antetokounmpo said of his career day passing. “My teammates were in the right spot, they were able to knock down shots, drive the ball hard and to roll hard and that’s why the number came to 15 assists.

“I just do half of the work and my teammates do the rest.”

Four of his assists came in the fourth quarter, including a kick to Brook Lopez who buried a 30-foot three-pointer to help spark the Bucks final surge towards victory.

The Greek Freak also passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Bucks all-time assist leader board, moving into seventh with 2009 career dimes.

“I think he can average a triple-double, honestly,” Bledsoe added. “Especially if we make shots. He’s been doing a hell of a job keeping pressure on that basket, and that’s going to draw like five defenders and he do a great job of finding us.

“Once we start knocking those down consistently it could be a lot more scary for him getting in the paint.”

Antetokounmpo joked that he was “so touched” by Bledsoe’s sentiment. “I’m happy with where I am at. I’m happy with where the team is at,” he said.

“We can only get better. One of our best players is not playing. So we just have to keep going.”

The only players to record minutes for the Bucks and not hit a three were Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova. Connaughton finished the game with 18 points off the bench, including this sure to be SportsCenter top-10 put back jam.

Milwaukee will now play 11 of their next 14 games at home after playing on the road for 10 of their first 14 games of the season.

Quick turnaround for Bucks, Lillard-less Blazers are up next

The Milwaukee Bucks will play 11 back-to-back series this season.

Thursday night against the Portland Trailblazers will conclude their second of such sets.

Fortunately for the team, and unfortunate for fans, Portland will be without superstar Damian Lillard as the team has already ruled him out due to injury.

Lillard is averaging 28.6 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game this season.

The visitors will have Carmelo Anthony on the roster, however. They signed him this past week after he was out of basketball for nearly an entire calendar year. Anthony scored 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in his team debut.

Giannis Antetokounmpo only played 30 minutes in the team’s Wednesday night win over the Atlanta Hawks, scoring 33 points on 70 percent shooting. He averages 33 minutes per game.

The Bucks first back-to-back this season started in the eastern time zone (Orlando) as well, followed by a late night flight and ended with a game in Milwaukee. In wins over the Magic and Toronto Raptors, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 and 36 points respectively, averaging 67 percent from the floor.

Because it’s a matchup against Portland, it’s fitting to enjoy highlights of Antetokounmpo scoring 44 against them in 2017.

Jabari Parker’s legacy in Milwaukee

Jabari Parker is only 24 years old.

Sometimes, when evaluating his career thus far, you have to remind yourself that the Milwaukee Bucks former No.2 overall pick has had anything but a conventional start to his NBA career, yet he’s still younger than superstar talents Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

There was never a doubt about his offensive abilities. Averaging more than 15 points per game for his career, Parker was instant offense during his time in Milwaukee. It was the combination of two ACL injuries, defensive shortcomings and a hefty price tag that ultimately led to the Bucks decision to let him walk in free agency.

Short term history would tell you that Parker leaving Milwaukee was right for both parties involved. The Bucks allocated funds to complete a very talented roster, this season and last, plus Parker was able to make a lot of money while starting the next chapter of his career.

Legacy is a funny word. When thinking of Parker’s in Milwaukee, the average fan might jump to “knee” or “injuries” as how they choose to recall his playing time.

Parker, however, will definitely be remembered in the city where he began his NBA career, this legacy might just not be what you’d assume when discussing a basketball player.

Off the court

In 2015 he helped donate Thanksgiving turkeys to families in need. This wasn’t just a one time donation either. It became an annual occurrence.

He also helped launch attendance initiatives for Milwaukee Public School students. Trading game tickets to scholars who reached attendance goals. Parker made appearances to schools to help educate and encourage students on the importance of going to class daily.

Or that time he rented out an entire movie theatre so local kids could see the movie Black Panther.

To his credit, the number of grand donations, small acts of kindness or simple inspiration is unquantifiable. These few examples just captured the essence of his commitment to the city, and how important he took his role model status.

On the floor: Here’s how he got there

During the summer of 2018, after Milwaukee removed a qualifying offer on him, Parked signed a two-year, $40 million contract with the Chicago Bulls. The second year of the deal was a ‘team-option’ essentially protecting the Bulls if Parker suffered another devastating injury, or wasn’t playing up to his salary.

For perspective, other players to make $20 million that season included Ryan Anderson (Phoenix Suns), Jimmy Butler (Philadelphia 76ers) and Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics).

After just 39 appearances for the Bulls, he was dealt to the Washington Wizards as part of a multi-player deal.

Would he be a good fit?

Fast forward and Parker was a free-agent again this past summer. Ultimately he signed a 2-year, $13 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks. An average of $6.5 million per season isn’t that much of a risk in today’s NBA.

For further perspective, players such as Nemanja Bjelica, Jaren Jackson Jr., Darius Miller, and Ersan Ilyasova earn between $6.8 | 7 million.

The question isn’t whether or not the Bucks should have signed Parker this off-season to replace Ilyasova. That wasn’t a real option since he was already on Milwaukee’s books and cutting him would have counted against their salary cap.

Also, how would his defensive limitations fit with head coach Mike Budenholzer? The Bucks’ second-year head coach has been adamant about prowess and execution on that end of the floor.

It is possible he could be the type of role player Milwaukee is looking for in the future? Sure, anything is possible. It’s also possible that Parker, when healthy, continues to prove his elite scoring capabilities and is offered another substantial contract.

And, if you believe in karma, or the old saying “good things happen to good people,” don’t write off Parker anytime soon.

Milwaukee Bucks: Professional Wrestlers?

Andre the Giant was listed at 7-foot-5, 520 lbs.

Other World Wrestling Entertainment superstars such as Kane, The Great Khali and The Big Show were 7-feet tall.

Because they’re at least similar in height, those opponents, in theory, would be a fair fight for Milwaukee Bucks center Robin Lopez.

But never under-estimate the heart of an undrafted free agent now playing in his 11th NBA season.

Before the Bucks took the floor against the Chicago Bulls on Monday night, Wesley Matthews laid the SMACKDOWN on Lopez.

Chair and all.

Clearly this team is open to having fun. They’re 10-3 on the young season and have scored over 100 points in every contest.

If every player on his Bucks roster entered the ring, in a winner take all Super Smash Bros. style melee, who wins?

Bledsoe: I play to my strengths

Eric Bledsoe missed only two shots against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night.

Both were three-point attempts.

In the paint, the Milwaukee Bucks point guard was a perfect 12-for-12, finishing the game with 31 points after hitting 7-of-8 from the free throw line.

If Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 100 percent in the lane for an entire game it would be impressive stat line. He’s usually one of the biggest players on the court and can utilize his size to take advantage of defenders.

At 6-foot-1, 205 lbs, Bledsoe is on the opposite end and generally one of the smallest players on the floor. Obviously this should make it much tougher to consistently finish at the rim. Yet somehow, time and time again, he finds a way.

“I think he’s in a great place,” head coach Mike Budenholzer said after the game. “I do like the way he’s attacking and getting to the paint and finishing.

“Over the last five games or so, the three ball he’s been shooting that with a lot of confidence so he’s just in a good place. He just wants to do anything he can to help his teammates and help us win. He has just been great.”

Thursday marked Bledsoe’s fifth straight game with 20 or more points.

Efficiency and productivity close to the bucket isn’t anything necessarily new to Bledsoe’s game either.

This revelation also comes during an era where point guards, generally, prefer to try and score 25-feet away from the bucket. Bledsoe is shooting 32 percent of his total shots within three feet of the rim, and hitting 73 percent of them.

Move ‘outside’ a bit, and he’s scoring on 56 percent of shots from 3-to-10 feet away.

“I’m being more confident driving and making the right play,” Bledsoe said of his overall productivity this year. “When I’m not scoring the ball, kicking it out to my teammates and they’re doing a great job of knocking the ball down.

“I’m just trying to get in to the paint and live in the paint.”

From three he’s only hitting 29 percent this season, but he has shown the confidence to follow the Bucks’ “let it fly” mantra. Defenders are now forced to respect the threat of him pulling up from deep and when they close out, especially early in the shot clock, he can drive and create offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates.

“I play to my strengths,” he added. “I know I’m not a great three-point shooter but I am going to be confident out there playing the game and not settling.”

Bledsoe discussed the Giannis-effect as well. Noting that his teammate is “one of the dominant forces in the league in the paint” and can abuse his opponent at will.

“You got to put five players on him, so it makes my job easier.”

Antetokounmpo sees things a little differently than one would expect. Instead of a superstar thinking that he makes all of his teammates better, his teammates inspire him to play at an even higher level.

“When I see (Bledsoe) attacking the basket that’s when I go downhill also,” Antetokounmpo said of the team playing off of one another. “I think the attention switches and they’re worried about Bled so much that we get so many wide open lanes. Usually when we both do that we give our teammates a lot of open threes and a lot of easy shots.

“If I can’t go downhill, Bledsoe can go downhill. If Bledsoe can’t go downhill, I can go downhill. So we usually find a balance with that and just try to be aggressive always.”

Donte DiVincenzo will start for the Milwaukee Bucks

Donte DiVincenzo will start for the Milwaukee Bucks tonight against the Chicago Bulls.

The 6-foot-4 guard is stepping in for the injured Khris Middleton.

“Excited about getting Donte a chance and putting him out there with that group,” head coach Mike Budenholzer said while meeting with reporters pregame. “Letting him play with a lot of veterans. A lot of guys who have played together and won games. I think it’s a good group for him to mix in with.”

DiVincenzo is averaging nearly six points per game this season, with three rebounds and one assist. He is shooting 45 percent from three-point range.

“Donte, I think is unique in how he competes and how he does little things,” Budenholzer added. “He does get some pretty impressive rebounds himself and he’s great at getting back and getting hits and doing all of the little things that make you good defensively.”

After Wednesday’s practice Budenholzer pointed out how obviously Middleton would be missed statistically, averaging 18.5 points and six rebounds, but added that he’s successful with a lot of “under-the-radar” aspects of the game that don’t show up on a stat sheet.

Expect increased minutes for Sterling Brown as well. Budenholzer is high on his ability to contribute on both ends of the floor, especially the glass.

Middleton will be out for 3-4 weeks with a left thigh contusion.

Antetokounmpo on Freak 1’s: I made sure everybody got a pair

You see it a lot in football.

Quarterbacks often gifting their offensive linemen with big ticket items around the holiday season, showing extra appreciation for keeping them standing upright all year.

Recently, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith said he was buying the entire defense Rolex watches to celebrate hitting double-digits in the sack category.

On the hardwood, Giannis Antetokounmpo made sure every player in the Milwaukee Bucks locker room had a pair of Zoom Freak 1’s, his first signature sneaker as a Nike athlete.

“I made sure everybody got a pair,” he said following Wednesday’s practice. “If they put it on, that’s their decision. but I made sure that everybody got a pair.”

The Athletic’s Eric Nehm pointed out that Bucks’ guard Eric Bledsoe was practicing in the Freak 1’s for the first time.

“Got to show my man some support,” he said while wearing a red colorway of the shoe. “That’s my guy right there.”

This “support” coincidentally comes one day after Antetokounmpo got a delivery to his locker of countless boxes of Freak 1’s, individually branded with all of the major colleges and universities that will play in them this year.

One of those schools, the University of Kentucky. Oh, and where did Bledsoe go to college?

“The Kentucky Freaks, I can get those?” Bledsoe shouted across the practice court to Antetokounmpo before starting his media availability.

“Yeah, for sure, I got you,” was the response. Much to Bledsoe’s pleasure.

Of course, Antetokounmpo had to be asked about the sneaker delivery.

“I think that was pretty cool,” he said. “I didn’t know that guys, signature athletes of Nike, get each pair of the school and college. It’s cool.

“Bled wanted the Kentucky but they were too big for him. He’d have to wear like seven socks so he could fit in my shoe. I’ll get him some, what is he like size seven?

“I’m joking, what is he like size 13 or 14? I’ll get him a pair.”

When you look around the Bucks practice floor, a few other players, first-year teammate Kyle Korver for example, trainers and staff members were also wearing different colorways.

Here is the version Antetokounmpo wore at today’s practice. Insert countless fire emojis.

Watch any NBA game on any given night and you’ll see other players wearing the shoe as well, including former Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon.

“When I watch games on TV I see a lot of guys wearing the shoe, that’s pretty cool.”

Budenholzer: Go play basketball

The Milwaukee Bucks cannot simply replace Khris Middleton.

Following a Wednesday afternoon practice, head coach Mike Budenholzer pointed out that Middleton does a lot of things defensively that are “underrated” and often “not appreciated by the general public.”

That being said, Milwaukee isn’t throwing a pity party, or expecting any upcoming opponent to take pity on them.

“It’s a big loss,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said regarding the absence of his running mate. “Great freakin’ player. Covers 20 points per game, all-star, so many things he brings to the team and to the table.

“Next man. Guys got to step up. Donte (DiVincenzo) has to step up. Sterling (Brown) has to step up. I think guys have been working hard all season and they’re ready to go. We have to play great basketball for the next 3-4 weeks until he gets back.”

Middleton was averaging 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game before going down with a left thigh contusion.

Different iterations of ‘next man up’ were thrown around Milwaukee’s practice facility. Although Budenholzer didn’t explicitly say who would slide into the starting role and be ‘next,’ the team is confident in their depth and will take advantage of different skill sets from different rotational players.

“I’ve been at this a long time. This is year 11. I’ve been playing basketball since I was two or three years old,” veteran Wesley Matthews said. “All these guys have been playing basketball their whole lives. We know how to play this game. Khris is a tremendous player who has been huge for us so far in this early season.

“It might not be one guy that steps up and averages 18. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s a different guy every single night. Maybe it’s everybody bumping their averages up six points, five points. It’s going to be the defensive side of the ball that limits them from good shots and making sure that we get good shots at the other end.”

Eric Bledsoe revealed that he did call to check in on how Middleton was doing.

“I told him he quit on us,” Bledsoe said laughing. “Just to mess with him a little bit. I’m just glad he’s doing alright though.

“Nobody can fill in for Khris and what he does, but all we can do is play our game. We can play our game, play within the system and everything else will take care of itself. Khris is a special player, he’s an all-star, nobody can do what he does on a nightly basis but we can play our game at the same time.”

Antetokounmpo doesn’t intend to change the way he plays on the floor, saying that he will remain aggressive whether or not he’s bringing the ball up the court or posting on the block. However, don’t be thrown off if you hear his voice a little more often.

“I got to be more vocal,” he said. “Losing a guy like Khris, he’s a leader of this team, I got to be more vocal. Guys got to hear my voice more and that’s what I am going to try to do.”

Milwaukee takes the floor Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls.

“We will miss him,” Budenholzer added. “We told him we’ll miss him. It’s our job to figure it out and keep playing. Trying to do well.

“Nobody needs to do anything different or special. They just need to go play basketball.”

Multiple Choice: How will the Bucks replace Khris Middleton?

Remember in high school when the answers to a multiple choice exam were A,B,C or D?

Without even an educated guess you had a 25 percent chance at getting it right.

Then in college the exams were a bit tougher. Option “E” was added, lowering your percentage at a correct blind guess, and the answer for “C” read “A & B and sometimes D.”

The latter is how the Milwaukee Bucks will most likely have to answer their current conundrum of replacing forward Khris Middleton while he’s sidelined with a left thigh contusion for 3-4 weeks.

Based on the way head coach Mike Budenholzer has rotated his bench this season, we could see nights where they go smaller with Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown.

Then there’s the bigger lineup with Ersan Ilyasova seeing an increase in his 17 minutes per game average.

Through 10 games this season Budenholzer has sent out the same starting lineup. But, thanks to depth, every player in their rotation averages at least a quarter of action per night (12 minutes).

According to NBA analysts Steve Smith and Candace Parker, the Bucks will continue to thrive if Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo continue to lead the charge.

Here’s a guesstimate of what else we could see from Milwaukee in Middleton’s absence:

Option A: Increase the workload for Sterling Brown

The third year pro has only played in seven games this season, and averages just 12 minutes per appearance. However, Budenholzer has shown confidence in him late in games. His prowess on defense, plus his tenacity on the boards, makes him a viable candidate to help fill some of the void. This season he is shooting a career-high 41.7 percent from three and nearly 52 percent from the floor.

Option B: George Hill to the rescue

When needed, Hill has shown the ability to put on his cape for the Bucks. Looking back at last season while Malcolm Brogdon was sidelined, or last week when he shot 6-of-7 from three and finished with 24 points against the Los Angeles Clippers. If he moves into the starting lineup, Wesley Matthews would more than likely slide down to the small forward position. A smaller yet effective grouping, especially on the defensive end.

Option C: Outside of the box score

Ilyasova isn’t going to stuff the stat sheet. He has only cracked double-digit scoring three times this season. However, he is another veteran option who fully understands his role in the team’s offense. If Antetokounmpo drives to the basket and draws a double-team, Ilyasova is capable of hitting an open look.

When charges and broken noses equate to points, he’ll be in the basketball hall of fame. That grittiness is definitely beneficial to a team missing one of their leaders.

Option D: The Big Ragu

Now that he’s healthy, Donte DiVincenzo has shown signs of why exactly general manager Jon Horst spent a first-round draft selection on him. He’s shooting 45 percent from three and has been the first or second player rotated in each game.

On numerous occasions this season the Bucks have played five bench players at the same time in the first quarter, allowing the starters to rest. DiVincenzo has been one of the key offensive sparks for those lineups and could provide some missing energy.

Option E: Keep the scorer’s table busy

You can’t replace 30 minutes and 18.5 points per game. Middleton, despite how fans feel about his contract, is a vital piece to Milwaukee’s success on both ends of the floor.

The luxury of depth will come in handy over the next month. Constantly rotating in all of the above options plus the possibly of increased roles for Kyle Korver and Pat Connaughton. DJ Wilson has been utilized sparingly this year, but he too is a ball of energy who can contribute when needed.