Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ranking The Bucks' Options At Power Forward

There’s some debate about who should start at power forward this season, and who should even be called one. Michael Ruffin is the fourth choice, but despite his willingness to the dirty work, there isn’t quite enough of a case to make for him. The latest is that there are three contenders, so my task is to rank them:

  • 1. Charlie Villanueva

One could argue he shouldn’t start. His versatility and lack of go-to game make him a natural to come off the bench. Further, his shooting percentages were better across the board not starting last year:

"Starting: FG: .469 FT: .735 3PT: .265

Off Bench: FG: .471 FT: .925 3PT: .385"

Just twenty-three years old, he would only now be a rookie if he had stayed in school four years at Connecticut. But he was NBA-ready out of college as evidenced by his easy second place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2005.

Many were encouraged when Larry Harris traded away T.J. Ford because of his deficiencies and injuries. Villanueva proved there were two similar sides of that coin. Injuries stunted his growth last season, but he says his shoulder is “100 % ready.” Entering his third year in the NBA, the next step is develop more consistency. The injuries are out of his control, but the Bucks can’t afford to rotate starting lineups so frequently this season. It's important to have a variety of capable lineups, but the starting one should be have consistency.

In the end, he’s the most logical choice to start alongside Andrew Bogut in the frontcourt given his superior talent. Villanueva’s youthful athleticism makes him a good fit on a first-string that will push the ball early and often. His all-around skill set exceeds the other competitors. While others have some specific areas of strength, Villanueva can do a little of everything: rebound, run the floor, and shoot from outside. The realistic best-case scenario for Yi Jianlian is to duplicate Villanueva’s rookie season. Granted, Villanueva has yet to take a firm step forward since his rookie year, but there’s little chance he’ll regress now in his third year.

Keep in mind, injuries marred a strong start last year by Villanueva. In November, he averaged 14.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.3 steals and shot .495 from the field. He didn’t match any of those statistics in any other month the rest of the season. A fresh beginning and the confidence that comes with a starting role will help him find the fast track he has been on intermittently the last couple years.

  • 2. Yi Jianlian

At 6'11" and 238 pounds, he’s virtually the identical size of Villanueva. Contrary to official records, there are some whispers that he might be the about the same age too. One thing we do know is that he’s played four accomplished years of professional basketball in the Chinese Basketball Association. Last year, he averaged 24.9 points and 11.5 rebounds.

The question is how those numbers will translate to the NBA. If the open scrimmage and preseason is any indication, Yi has some ability to score on this new level (though not more than Villanueva at present), but will frequently be overmatched defensively. In the open scrimmage, he didn't provide any real resistance guarding Bogut. It's not as though Villanueva's expertise is defense either, but he's at least had some experience. Yi won’t have to guard centers, but consider some Eastern Conference power forwards that he’d be forced to defend: Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, and Jermaine O’Neal. While they are lean, they are premier rebounders and aren’t hesitant to attack the basket. Yi's tendency to pick up fouls and turnovers at a high rate so far doesn't inspire confidence either.

The Bucks have a powerful offense, but can’t afford to fall behind in the first quarter each night because they have below-average defenders all over the court at the same time. Again, Villanueva is no defensive star, but letting Yi start and pick up fouls quickly will slow down the tempo of the game, which won’t work in the Bucks’ favor. He’s best served to come off the bench, where he can get more playing time against opposing team’s backups. With the pressure of potentially 1.3 billion onlookers back home and a skeptical American media, the Bucks need to allow Yi some comfort and room to grow initially. That will ultimately expedite the process of Yi’s ascent to legitimate starting-caliber power forward status anyway. And then we can more seriously revisit this debate.

  • 3. Dan Gadzuric

If Gadzuric would have progressed even moderately since his solid 2004-05 campaign, he’d have a decent case to start, like he did 81 times that year for the Bucks.

Unfortunately, he’s inexplicably regressed in what should be his prime years. Even his old strengths, like activity on the offensive glass and a high shooting percentage, have taken a turn for the worse.

Then again, his preseason performances give some reason to believe he’s ready to return to form. And coming off a defensively-challenged season, a frontcourt of Bogut and Gadzuric is the team’s best bet to create some semblance of a defensive identity. Bogut looks ready to step up as a more consistent scorer, further minimizing the problem of Gadzuric’s offensive limitations. Plus, unlike Villanueva, he played better as a starter last year, averaging 10.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.75 blocks, and 1.13 steals on .508 shooting from the field.

However, those statistics need some context. They came at the end of the year and against teams with a combined record of 249-413 (.376). And the Bucks only went 2-6 in the games.

The Bucks have more depth at power forward than center, making Gadzuric more valuable serving as the team’s primary backup center. A Bogut/Gadzuric pairing makes sense depending on matchups and circumstance, and Yi looks poised to mature into a starting-worthy player before too long, but for now at least, Villanueva is the best power forward available. That might not be ideal, or exciting, but it's reality.

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