Jon Leuer's role and opportunity in Milwaukee

Trust me when I say I have just recently come down from the emotional high of seeing a Badger drafted to the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately, that high has been supplanted by a dark, brooding misery thanks to the the now-official NBA lockout. Normally we’d be hearing plenty about Jon’s “energy” and “enthusiasm to learn and improve,” but the all-encompassing ban on team/player interactions (penalized with up to a $1 million fine for violations) means no chance for Leuer to talk with the coaches, work with the training staff, or even decorate his locker. Tragically, it seems unlikely that there will be any sort of organized means for Jon to get on the court for the Bucks anytime soon, with lockout concerns having killed the annual Summer League.

Thus we’re left with only our best guesses as to what Leuer’s role with the Bucks is likely to entail next season, whenever it starts. Despite my enthusiasm and the universally acknowledged value of Leuer as a promotional tool, there is no guarantee he’ll even make the roster. In an overly simplistic sense, the odds are against him, since the majority of second-round picks don’t ever make it to the NBA, much less prove themselves productive players. But that includes those late-round flyers on international players picked by teams who don’t want to pay them. The real truth is that Leuer is an uncommon player with a highly desirable skill set, something that lends him a minor advantage over a more conventional player.

Still, he faces an uphill battle on a Bucks roster that is relatively crowded at power forward. The Bucks have four players currently on the roster who make the most sense at the 4, including $6.2 million invested in Drew Gooden, the obvious starter. Behind him sit Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, and Jon Brockman, plus Luc Mbah a Moute when the Bucks play small. With Milwaukee still lacking a clear backup center and depth on the wings, the open roster spots may be destined for positions of need rather than their second round pick. It’s possible (at a time it even seemed likely) that some of that depth may eventually be traded this summer, but again, the lockout hangs over the league like a black cloud that rains boredom and frustration.

So while a purely clerical analysis of the Bucks’ roster seems likely to leave Leuer the odd man out, a closer look reveals that Leuer might actually be a great fit on the team. Jon’s combine measurements list him at 6’11.5” in shoes, and as ESPN’s Zach Harper frequently reminds us, they do still play in shoes. This gives him the possibility of sliding over and playing some minutes at center, should the matchups allow it. Leuer’s excellent defensive fundamentals (thanks, Bo!) give him a decent chance against some of the slimmer, finesse centers in the NBA. You know, the ones that would normally get labelled “soft,” a designation Leuer would likely have received himself if he was from Lithuania. He’s not nearly strong enough to defend the better low-post big men of the NBA, but he’s a smart enough player to be a solid help defender, an underrated skill.

Most likely, though, Leuer will spend the vast majority of his time at PF. The question then becomes: who does he replace? The first, most obvious possibility is the undersized Jon Brockman. Acquired from the Sacramento Kings before the season for Darnell Jackson and a second-round pick, Brockman came in as a rebounding specialist after compiling a league-leading 18.2 offensive rebound rate. This season that number fell to a still respectable 12.3, but the truth is that unless Brockman is providing truly exceptional rebounding, his value is limited. Despite standing only 6’7″, Brockman played about half of his minutes at center, where his rebounding numbers remained good, but his defense was a bit of a liability. Brockman was a foul machine and gave up a 54.1% shooting to opposing centers, racking up a -4.8 deficit in PER.

The other question mark at PF is Ersan Ilyasova, who was rumored to be interested in leaving the Bucks and returning to Europe. Ilyasova was expected to play a stretch-4 role himself, but his 36.5% shooting from behind the arc in his rookie year is a mark he has not matched since, dropping below 30% last season. Ilyasova is also a good rebounder, though not exceptional on the offensive boards. Ersan was the subject of trade speculation when the Bucks were rumored to be interested in acquiring another late first round pick. Ilyasova is still a solid player, but he is also one of the Bucks’ most tradeable assets, and if he can’t regain his stroke from deep, the organization may not have a real need for his services.

With Scott Skiles for a coach, Leuer is going to have to earn his minutes no matter what the roster looks like ahead of him. The easiest way to do that, given his position, is to play good defense, rebound, and make open shots. There’s no easy way to quantify the first point. The Badgers are always a “good” defensive basketball team, but credit likely resides more with Bo Ryan and his system than any individual player. The Badgers do play man defense almost exclusively, so the adjustment won’t be severe. As for rebounding, Leuer’s much-maligned ability on the boards is probably a little too maligned. His pure counting stats take a hit due to the snail’s pace at which Wisconsin plays, and the frequency with which Leuer played on the perimeter. The latter predominantly affects his offensive rebounding, but Leuer’s defensive rebound rate was a completely respectable 22.8. That makes him the best rebounder on the 12th-best defensive rebounding team in the NCAA. His numbers will take a hit in the NBA of course, but it won’t be a case of a bad rebounder getting worse.

Of everything, though, shot-making is the one thing Milwaukee is truly starved for. Bucks fans and Leuer-backers have to hope that his early season shooting fireworks are more the norm than the long slump he and the rest of the team fell into late in the year. If Leuer isn’t making at least an average percent of his NBA 3s, he will not find space on the roster. Luckily, the news out of most pre-draft workouts was positive, attesting that Leuer had not only extended his range to the NBA arc, but maintained good efficiency. The long-term fix for Milwaukee is to rely less on long jumpers as part of the offense and increase their success at the rim, but Leuer is the type of player who could excel in the pick-and-pop a la David West and Kevin Garnett.

We won’t know the extent to which Leuer figures in Milwaukee’s plans for the coming season and beyond until he is able to work with the coaching staff and the rest of the team in an organized fashion. Unfortunately, that scenario currently appears far, far away. Still, there’s little reason to deny Leuer’s potential based purely on his draft position. Leuer comes from a collegiate program that prides itself on hard work, which is all it should take for Jon to carve out a role for himself in the pros.

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