Every NBA offseason is filled with fans and pundits alike attempting to make predictions for the upcoming season. And every year, many of those predictions are wrong, but none quite like the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year award.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise to the Milwaukee Bucks’ resurgence (second to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s coming-out party, and perhaps third to their new jersey sponsors) was subtle rookie sensation Malcolm Brogdon. After the turn of the new year, Brogdon had surpassed teammate Matthew Dellavedova in playing time, leading Zach Lowe to mention him thusly in his weekly column:
Psst … President Malcolm Brogdon has outperformed Matthew Dellavedova, and he’s a cinch as of today for the No. 2 spot behind Joel Embiid in the Rookie of the Year race. Brogdon has drained 41 percent of his 3s, meaning he’s a good-enough spot-up shooter to work off the ball when Giannis Antetokounmpo is destroying fools. He’s big enough to defend wing players in case Jason Kidd wants to hide his buddy Jason Terry on opposing point guards.
Three weeks after Lowe wrote that piece, Embiid played his final game of the season, and the Rookie of the Year award was Brogdon’s for the taking.
The guard wasn’t considered a great prospect coming out of Virginia at the age of 23, but he did have good size (6’5″ with a 6’10.5″ wingspan) for a backcurt player and was considered to be a high-floor prospect. The Bucks took him with the 36th pick in the 2016 NBA draft, and he has already heavily outperformed his draft slot in just one season.
So what skill set has Brogdon brought to Milwaukee? In simplest terms, consistent play across the board:
Brogdon contributed 27.31 offensive points added (OPA) in his first year—the highest among all rookies—qualifying him for the 83rd percentile of the entire NBA. He didn’t have ostentatious per-game numbers, but he was a solid facilitator and a consistently strong shooter for a surprise playoff team in 2016-17.
His best asset as a rookie was his outside shooting. He cashed in on 40.4 percent of his 2.6 three-point attempts per contest and scored 1.19 points per possession (PPP) on spot-up opportunities (92nd percentile). With an offensive force like Giannis to command so much defensive attention, he often found himself wide open on the wings for high-percentage looks. Brogdon also managed to score 1.33 PPP on handoffs, second only to Anthony Davis in 2016-17 (minimum 40 possessions). Again, this is largely an effect of playing adjacent to Giannis, as one can see in plays like the below.
The Cleveland Cavaliers defense attempts to cover Giannis coming off the screen, preventing him from having an open lane to the basket, and it frees Brogdon to pop above the arc for an open shot:
He doesn’t have great foot speed, but he is smart and a patient facilitator who can take opposing guards off the dribble. Though he only scored 0.81 PPP (56th percentile) as the ball handler in pick-and-roll possessions, he showed a knack for playmaking ability and throwing passes through tight windows:
Plus, he has the ability to just take the ball to the hoop himself:
As the season unfolded, Brogdon and Giannis formed a nice pairing together. In the 1,305 minutes they shared the floor, they outscored opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions. In fact, Giannis-led lineups performed 2.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Brogdon was on the bench, thanks to declines on both ends of the floor:
One could infer that is due to the spacing Brogdon helps provide Milwaukee, as 27.0 percent of his total points scored came from spot-up opportunities. His impact extends to the rest of the outside shooters on the team, as well. Of the four other Bucks who shot above 40 percent from deep last season, only Khris Middleton and Tony Snell remain on the roster. Utilizing nbawowy, we can take a look at how these two shot with and without Brogdon on the floor:
|Individual 3P%||Brogdon Off||Brogdon On|
Snell experiences a positive 5.5 percent swing in his three-point percentage when Brogdon joins him on the court, but what really stands out is Middleton’s ludicrous 11.7 percent(!) jump in his three-point percentage. Middleton was already one of the best volume shooters from deep last season, and he could be even better with a full season alongside Brogdon (Middleton tore his hamstring last September, which kept him sidelined until February). The young guard’s impact isn’t exclusive to these two players, either, as the entire team experiences a 1.6 percent drop in both effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) when Brogdon heads to the bench.
His consistent play also extends to the other end of the floor, where he was a solid defender.
His best strength was defending opposing ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, where he limited them to 0.67 PPP (88th percentile). He has great size for a point guard and high defensive awareness, so despite his lack of athleticism, he can be a mismatch nightmare on a team that already has an abundance of length. He perfected utilizing the help defense to trap smaller guards such as Jamal Murray as they look to make a pass:
Here, he does the same thing to Aaron Brooks:
He also knows how to wield his length to disrupt passing lanes for larger ball-handlers, like with James Harden below:
Brogdon averaged 1.1 steals per game, the 12th-most among guards playing fewer than 30 minutes a game. The number itself isn’t very significant, but a majority of these steals come from the weak side as he was able to determine the next pass and intercept it, just as he did against the DeMar DeRozan kick-out below:
That type of awareness cannot be taught. Though Brogdon was solid in his play at both ends of the floor, he will turn 25 in December, indicating he might be closer to his ceiling as a player than Milwaukee would like. As noted by Draft Express’s Matt Kamalsky and Mike Schmitz prior to the 2016 NBA draft, “Having turned 23 in December, he may not have elite upside, but his maturity and strong base of fundamentals on both ends should be enough to give a secure him a guaranteed NBA roster spot for at least a year or two and show that his game can translate to the next level.”
Of course, Brogdon has already exceeded those expectations, and he still has room to grow.
One likely reason he shot such a high percentage from deep is because 129 of his 193 three-point attempts were considered “wide open” (closest defender is six or more feet away). That isn’t to say his first season was an outlier in terms of shooting, but he’ll need to improve confidence in his release so he’ll feel more comfortable shooting with a hand in his face.
He was also only slightly above average in both pick-and-roll and transition scoring, which is noteworthy because Milwaukee as a team had the fourth-highest PPP in transition last season. This is not to say those areas are distinct weaknesses in Brogdon’s game, but the Bucks should look for him to shoulder more of Giannis’ workload as a facilitator in the future. The young guard only averaged 4.2 assists in 26.4 minutes per-game in 2016-17, but he was one of only 10 rookies to post that figure with no greater than an 18.5 usage percentage since 2000.
For now, he may not be considered among the NBA’s new generation of premier young talents, but he could not be in a better position than with the current Bucks roster. Brogdon is already a noteworthy defensive presence for opposing ball-handlers and wings, as well as a triple-threat option on offense. With another offseason under his belt, he will flourish in an expanded role as Milwaukee looks to make the leap into contention.
The countdown has begun for the rest of the Eastern Conference, and it’s just a matter of time before the new-age Bucks supersede all the rest.
Follow Tim on Twitter @StubbHub.