Can Kendall Marshall Win Starting Job with Milwaukee Bucks?

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Can Kendall Marshall Win Starting Job with Milwaukee Bucks?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Kendall Marshall might very well earn the starting job for the Milwaukee Bucks next season.

Milwaukee smartly picked him up off waivers after the Los Angeles Lakers cut him due to salary-cap constraints, and the move should pay off for a team that lacks talent at point guard.

 

The Returning Regulars

Brandon Knight was the starter last season, and he produced mixed results.

To be fair, the Bucks clearly lacked talent judging from their league-worst 15-67 record.

Tom Lynn/Associated Press

However, Knight had a few pieces to work with in O.J. Mayo, Caron Butler (before he was bought out) and Ersan Ilyasova. They aren’t great, but they’ve shown throughout their respective careers they can produce with touches in their preferred spots.

It just so happens that those players didn’t get them, which falls on the shoulders of the 22-year-old point guard.

Knight is a shoot-first guard, and that means his teammates often come second, third or perhaps even last in his list of priorities. Basketball-Reference.com tells us he started 69 games and had the highest usage rate (26.8) on the team but only managed 5.3 assists per 36 minutes.

Want to know how hard that is?

Only two other point guards in NBA history have started at least 65 games and produced a usage rate of 26.8 or higher while averaging 5.3 assists per 36 minutes or lower. The complete list is Gilbert Arenas, World B. Free and Knight.

In the cases of Arenas and Free, both were good scorers in their first three seasons and then became explosive ones shortly after. They consistently got to the free-throw line and forced defenses to adjust to them despite what amounted to some poor shooting outings on several nights.

Tom Lynn/Associated Press

Knight doesn’t bring any of that to the table. So far in his short career, he’s proven to be an inefficient shooter (41.5 percent), mediocre playmaker (5.3 assists per 36 minutes) and a little allergic to the basket area (3.2 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes).

It’s certainly possible he’s improved this offseason, but I’m skeptical. Keep in mind, Knight could mitigate some of these deficiencies if he were good at running an offense and getting teammates involved, but he’s lacking in this department as well.

Knight simply isn’t a starting caliber point guard, a point that Grantland’s Zach Lowe hammered home last August:

Knight on the pick-and-roll is often out of sorts, slow to spot passing lanes, unable to engineer those lanes, and a step behind in understanding how and where the defense is rotating.

Experience and work can refine those skills, but Knight’s struggles have been so profound as to call into question, even at his young age, whether he will ever be a competent starting point guard on a good NBA team.

As Usher once sang, “let it burn.” Considering that I’ve basically gone out of my way to tell you how questionable of a player Knight is at point guard, I might as well now move on to Nate Wolters, who is No. 2 on the depth chart.

STEVE DYKES/Associated Press

Except I won’t.

Go back and read what I wrote about Knight, and now let this sink in: Wolters wasn’t good enough as a rookie to take Knight’s spot.

Knight wins out the head-to-head statistical battle, and he’s further along as an overall player than Wolters. Knight is slow when it comes to seeing plays unfold, but he’s more advanced than his backup.

In addition, Wolters might be better suited for baseball than long-range shooting as evidenced by his 29 percent three-point shooting figure from last year. Maybe his offseason workouts refine his skills and earn him the starting gig, but I don’t see it.

By the way, my apologies for lying to you. After saying I wouldn’t break down Wolters, I sort of did. We all make mistakes, let’s move on.

 

New Marshall in Town

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Marshall will join Milwaukee as a wanted man and could become the Bucks’ starting guard.

The job technically belongs to Knight, but the previous appraisal of his game suggests he doesn’t have a firm grip on it. Marshall on the other hand appears to be exactly what the Bucks need.

At 6’4", Marshall has just enough length to see over the top of defenders and hit players in stride. He is a pass-first guard who will learn under a coach that epitomized unselfishness when he led the break during his best years.

Jason Kidd was a sensational point guard during his playing days because he had uncanny court vision and made pinpoint passes to teammates that occasionally seemed absurd.

The Milwaukee starting position will come down to talent and fit, and Kidd could very well come to the realization that Marshall meets his requirements.

Marshall likes to get into the offense and feed open teammates, which is what Kidd specialized in as a player. That might not sound like much, but look at it this way: Both see the floor in a manner that Knight and Wolters don’t. Where Kidd and Marshall see open players, Knight and Wolters see congestion.

"He understands me,” Marshall said about Kidd to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel’s Charles F. Gardner. “We both have a pass-first mentality. He's a guy I've always looked up to."

To be clear, I’m not calling Marshall the best passing guard since Kidd or Magic Johnson. Rather, I’m saying that he’s a superior passer to the guys he will compete with for the starting job.

Some might view that as an exaggeration considering that Marshall played in the D-League last season before signing with the Lakers. Make no mistake, though, he routinely fed his teammates in both settings.

Marshall averaged 9.2 assists per 36 minutes with the Delaware 87ers (seven games) and 11 assists per 36 minutes with the Lakers (54 games). The assist figures speak to his willingness to spread the wealth around and fade mostly into the background, which is what the Bucks will need from their floor general.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

"He has tremendous vision, similar to the coach he's playing for,” said Bucks general manager John Hammond to Gardner. “He can throw over the top to bigs, he can throw ahead in transition and he also can penetrate and break down a defense."

Milwaukee will want for its best players to get opportunities to score, and Marshall will oblige. One of the most surprising aspects of his game is his willingness to let others handle the ball and dictate the flow of possessions.

This can be observed statistically.

Marshall’s usage rate last season (16.3) was inferior to Knight’s (26.8) and Wolters' (16.8). And yet, Marshall managed more assists per 36 minutes than both of his would-be challengers.

I was curious to see how many guards had averaged at least 11 assists per 36 minutes or more with a usage rate of 16.4 or lower for a minimum of 50 games (to weed out players who did it for a handful of games and then were benched or waived) during a season. The result is a list of five names, and one of those is the most prolific passer in league history (John Stockton).

Again, I’m not saying Marshall is headed for the Hall of Fame here. But it seems widely evident that he will give Milwaukee a potent setup man.

 

Crystal Ball

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Marshall will get a legitimate shot at the starting spot, and I ultimately think he’ll get it.

There’s some interesting young talent on the team, and it would be a shame to watch it stagnate because players aren’t getting chances to exhibit their skills with the ball. Here’s a look at some of the names on roster and what their ages will be when the season tips off:

Bucks Young Players
Player Age
Giannis Antetokounmpo 20
John Henson 23
Khris Middleton 23
Jabari Parker 19

Basketball-Reference.com

Keep in mind, there are still veterans like Mayo and Ilyasova that will need the ball as well. I’m inclined to believe Marshall will get the nod precisely because he’ll bring some balance to the offense by consistently delivering the ball to teammates in a timely fashion that allows them to obtain shots in preferred spots.

It’s also worth noting that he has some value as a floor spacer after making 39.9 percent of his treys last season.

Granted, because of the youth and lack of star talent (until Jabari Parker actually emerges as one in the near future), it’s possible the franchise might direct Kidd to play the young guys so they can get their lumps and grow together.

Well, Marshall fits into that strategy as well. He’ll only be 23 years old on opening night, which means Marshall is also part of the Bucks’ youth movement. Thus, it would appear that he is the answer at point guard regardless of the scenarios presented.

 

All statistics came via Basketball Reference, unless otherwise noted.

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