LOS ANGELES — Last spring, one player in particular had NBA executives buzzing at the league's predraft camp in Chicago.
Not Ben Simmons, the eventual No. 1 pick; he declined to attend. Not Dragan Bender, the most hyped international prospect; he was still playing for his club overseas.
The talk, it turns out, was about Malcolm Brogdon, and not just because he measured well (6'10 ½" wingspan, 10 ¼" hands) and played even better in the scrimmage (17 points on eight shots with six assists, four rebounds and three steals).
"If you had the opportunity to go through the interview process with him, I think everybody felt he should be the No. 1 pick," Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said.
And maybe more than that.
"It’s rare that a talented player’s personality outshines his game," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "When you walked out of the interview with Brogdon, you went, 'My gosh, he should actually be running for president.' I actually made that statement."
That wasn't enough to make him a first-round pick in a weak 2016 draft. But it worked out well all the same for the Bucks, who felt fortunate to find Brogdon in the second round last June and feel even better about it now.
"You’ve got to be honest with your situation and say that there’s times where good luck plays a part in the draft," Bucks general manager John Hammond said. "To say we knew Malcolm was going to be this, I wish I could say that we were that confident."
Twenty-one teams, Milwaukee included, had a chance to draft Brogdon before the Bucks did. Nobody bit.
How did so many teams miss on a player who now looks like the best Rookie of the Year candidate from last year's draft class?
"I think teams make the same decisions every year based on the same information and based on the same decision-making," Brogdon said. "I think a lot of it is flawed, but it’s the way they draft."
"Players that stay, sometimes we have a tendency to over-evaluate," Hammond said.
The league had plenty of time to pick apart Brogdon's game. He spent five years (including a sophomore redshirt) at the University of Virginia, where he was named ACC Player of the Year and twice the ACC Defensive Player of the Year while earning a bachelor's and a master's degree.
"Certain guys you look and say, 'Are they can’t miss, can’t fail guys?'" Hammond said. "He’s a guy that you probably are going to put in that category."
At 23, Brogdon was the third-oldest player taken in 2016. He might wind up as the most productive in his class, too. He is currently third among last year's draftees in PER, but has played far more than his closest competitors.
|Top PER Performers From 2016 Draft|
|Ivica Zubac, LAL||17.49||32||15.2|
|Juancho Hernangomez, DEN||14.81||52||13.2|
|Malcolm Brogdon, MIL||14.41||67||26.2|
|Tyler Ulis, PHX||13.10||48||12.7|
|Caris LeVert, BKN||12.51||43||21.1|
Not a bad start for a 6'5" tweener with an unorthodox shot. Versatility is a currency in today's NBA, and Brogdon had plenty of time in college to earn his.
And yet, 35 players were taken before him. How does that happen?
"I don’t have any conspiracy theories," Kidd said. "I’m just happy he was on the board when we had the opportunity to pick."
The Bucks also had the 10th overall selection at their disposal and at least one prominent voice in the organization—director of scouting Billy McKinney—shouting for them to spend it on Brogdon. McKinney was enamored with Brogdon's defensive prowess, his ability to occupy either backcourt spot and, like everyone else, his maturity.
But the Bucks opted to use their lottery pick on Thon Maker, a skinny, 7-foot teenager with inside-out skills and eye-popping potential. He's started up front since Jabari Parker went down with another ACL tear, but has played largely token minutes (12.0 per game) and made similarly token contributions (4.2 points on 34.2 percent shooting, 2.3 rebounds).
"I think it’s a huge mistake on the part of the general managers," Bucks veteran Jason Terry said about players like Brogdon falling on draft day. "But at the same time, I understand it from a business perspective because when you’re a franchise that is not contending or playing for a championship, you would like to groom your talent and mold a younger guy."
The 20-year-old Maker has a long way to go before he can consistently fill a role in Milwaukee, let alone actualize his tantalizing potential. Brogdon, on the other hand, has been a dependable part of Milwaukee's rotation from the get-go, thanks in part to his exemplary marks in Basketball 101.
"Just understanding the language can confuse some guys," Kidd said. "But for Malcolm, he can understand the language. That makes the process go a little bit quicker than most."
The Bucks needed Brogdon to hit the ground running. With Giannis Antetokounmpo, Parker and Khris Middleton already in place, Milwaukee wasn't looking to rebuild so much as reload for a return to the playoffs.
Brogdon's role in that revival has only grown since he arrived in Wisconsin. In late September, Middleton, Milwaukee's best perimeter shooter, suffered a gruesome hamstring injury. Four weeks later, the team traded Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year at point guard, to the Chicago Bulls for Tony Snell, a two-way wing.
That shuffle left the Bucks dangerously short on floor-spacers and playmakers. When Matthew Dellavedova went down with a hamstring injury in late December, Brogdon filled the void and averaged 13.2 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds while draining 44.7 percent of his threes over 12 subsequent starts. Since then, he and Dellavedova have found a comfortable fit on the floor next to each other, with Brogdon getting the starting nod in eight of his last nine outings.
"When we get to play together is fun," Dellavedova said. "I think we have good chemistry. We can find each other."
Parker's knee injury in early February, just as Middleton was getting back into the swing of things, threatened to pull apart the team's postseason push. Rather than succumb to an infestation of injury bugs, Milwaukee has responded with 12 wins in 17 games to climb back into the East's playoff picture, including a 6-2 mark over that span when Brogdon has started.
"Just having him out there is a bonus for us because he makes the game easier for us," Antetokounmpo said.
The Atlanta native has done his part to hold Milwaukee together amid those challenges, from shooting 40.8 percent from three and dunking on LeBron James to triple-doubling on New Year's Eve and averaging nearly three times as many assists (4.1) as turnovers (1.5). He also leads all rookies in secondary assists—the pass before the pass.
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Brogdon has missed just two games in his debut campaign and ranks in the top 10 among all rookies in appearances (eighth), total minutes (third), total points (second), total assists (first) and total steals (first).
"He might not have the expression out on the floor or show you any nerves, but he's always under control," Kidd said. "He understands what he’s trying to do and that, as a rookie, can only help your team."
Brogdon may have a tough time overtaking Philadelphia's Dario Saric in the minds of those considering how to cast their votes for Rookie of the Year, but he's got plenty of support in his own locker room—both for the award and against pugilistic opponents.
"Understanding his contributions on the floor, he should be Rookie of the Year this year," Terry said.
"Oh yeah," Antetokounmpo agreed. "Malcolm for Rookie of the Year."
Rookie of the Year or no, a league that feeds on stars will always have plenty of room for glue guys like Brogdon. The second round has become a haven for just those kinds of players.
Draymond Green, a senior out of Michigan State, was the 35th pick of the Golden State Warriors in 2012. One slot earlier, the Dallas Mavericks selected Jae Crowder, a four-year collegian between South Georgia Tech, Howard College and Marquette, and now a key cog for the Boston Celtics. Nikola Jokic, No. 41 overall in 2014, was a three-year pro by the time he left Europe to join the Denver Nuggets in the fall of 2015.
For them and so many others of their ilk, more time preparing for the Association might've hurt their draft stock, but only helped once they set foot on NBA hardwood.
"I think you mature, you come into the NBA knowing who you are, having an identity about what you can bring to the floor," Brogdon said of his college experience. "And you know how to handle yourself. You’re a grown man by the time you get to the NBA."
Only a grown man would march into his coach's office before a game against the San Antonio Spurs and ask to guard Kawhi Leonard, as Brogdon did earlier this season.
"He’s fearless," Terry said. "He’s a fierce competitor and he’s not scared of a challenge."
The search for upside is never-ending, but upside can take many forms. The Bucks saw plenty in what Maker could become in time and in Brogdon's ability to help now. Any player just acclimating to the NBA, regardless of age or prior experience, is a good bet to get better once he's settled into the playing style and lifestyle of the league.
With the way the D-League is growing, the NBA can be a basketball incubator for unpolished gems. The addition of two-way contracts in the new collective bargaining agreement and the steady expansion of minor league franchises will allow teams to treat their affiliates like prep programs for prospects that need more time to find their games.
The Bucks will open up their own D-League (soon to be G-League) outpost in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, next season, where the next Thon or Giannis can learn firsthand how the organization wants them to play, while the big club in Milwaukee positions itself to contend long-term in the East.
So long as there is an NBA draft, there will be players of Brogdon's ability who wind up in the second round. If Brogdon is the next Draymond in that regard, who does he see as the next him? Start with Villanova's Josh Hart.
"He’s a proven winner. He’s the best winner in the country, I would say," Brogdon said. "I don’t think the NBA values that enough. When you bring a winner onto your team, he knows how to win, he's going to help your team win, and that’s the goal at the end of the day."
Seems simple enough. Yet, if the mock drafts are any indication, Hart, like Brogdon, will slip through the cracks into the second round—and, perhaps, into the lap of a team that needs him.