The Milwaukee Bucks are a team built on getting the absolute most out of a player’s development.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the face of it all, going from a lanky kid who was drafted on the potential of his frame and raw skill set to an unstoppable force and two-time MVP who has exceeded any of the Bucks’ wildest dreams. Khris Middleton was part of a Brandon Jennings sign-and-trade in 2013, coming off a fairly unremarkable rookie year in Detroit in which he averaged 6.1 points per game off of the bench. He’s morphed into an All-Star and the ideal complement to Giannis.
Because the rise of those two into stars is often a focal point, the development story that is Brook Lopez can get overlooked, both in the impact it’s had on making the Bucks a perennial contender and in how dramatic and unlikely it has been. Lopez is in his 15th season in the NBA, and his career is a tale of two almost completely different players.
For the first eight years he spent on the Nets, Lopez was one of the game’s best interior scorers, averaging 18.3 points per game on his way to becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, a title he still holds. Of his 6,826 field goal attempts over those eight seasons, just 31 were from three-point range. He made three of them. A whopping 68.7 percent of his attempts came from inside 10 feet. Lopez was almost an Al Jefferson-type scorer for the first half of his career, with terrific post footwork, a strong faceup game, and some surprisingly solid handles, all of which are on display in this 35-point outing from 2015.
By this point, you can see Lopez had started to move out a bit more toward the perimeter in pick-and-pops, but wasn’t going to the three-point line just yet and still spent a good bit of time in the deep post. In 2016-17, his ninth and final season with the team, Lopez saw the game changing in real time and made the pivot to fully extending his range, taking 387 threes (out of 1,172 overall field goal attempts) and making 34.6 percent of them.
From there, he was traded to the Lakers, where he let it fly from deep on similar efficiency. But head coach Luke Walton didn’t see the full value in Lopez’s ability to stretch the floor for the young squad, steadily chipping away at Lopez’s role until he was rarely a part of the closing lineup towards the end of the season. Lopez admitted this wore on him tremendously, and he soured on the Lakers going into free agency that summer, where he struggled to find a robust market on the heels of how things went in L.A.
Lopez inked a 1-year, $3.4 million deal with the Bucks, where his suddenly changing skill set meshed quite well. He immediately became a vital piece in Milwaukee, becoming a perfect frontcourt pairing with Giannis on both ends of the floor.
Offensively, his ability to step out to the three-point line and be a threat allows Antetokounmpo to attack a vacant paint or make defenders pay by flicking a pass to a wide open Lopez for three when opposing centers linger too long in help. He’s a tremendous screener, freeing up Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Jrue Holiday to get downhill while he pops or rolls. Without a center that can stretch the floor beyond the three-point line — Lopez, who has earned the nickname Splash Mountain, frequently spots up from a few feet beyond the arc — the Bucks offense would be even more crowded and murky than it already can be in the halfcourt.
Equally impressive is Lopez’s defensive transformation, which is in part due to finding the perfect system to operate in under Mike Budenholzer. Lopez isn’t the strongest nor is he the quickest, which made him something of a liability with the Nets. While understanding defensive catch-all metrics aren’t the perfect measure of defensive quality, Lopez’s never posted a positive defensive box plus/minus with the Nets, but has done so in ever full season in Milwaukee (sans last year’s 13-game regular season sample), per Basketball-Reference. His three highest seasons of defensive win shares have all come with the Bucks, including this season’s 3.0 and counting, as he has become the anchor to one of the league’s best defensive units.
Somewhat ironically, his relationship with Antetokounmpo on the defensive end is almost the inverse of how they operate on offense. While Antetokounmpo has earned a DPOY for his efforts as a roaming terror, a big reason he can spend his time as one of the league’s elite help defenders is Lopez perfecting the art of being a drop defender. Lopez has become one of the league’s most feared presences at the rim, in large part because he is always in the correct position. He sinks back deep into his drop, happy to let opposing guards and bigs get off a midrange jumper or three-pointer over a late contest if it means he takes away the paint, which Budenholzer deems so precious. Milwaukee’s style for years came under fire for allowing teams to take so many threes by design because they asked Lopez to lord over the paint above all else, but since adding better on-ball pressure in the form of Holiday, the system has given opponents headaches and requires tremendous shot-making performances to beat them.
Lopez acts as the fulcrum the rest of the Bucks pivot around, and his steady presence allows Antetokounmpo and Holiday to be more aggressive both at the point of attack and in sending help at the opponents; best scorers, because even if you beat them, Lopez is never far from the restricted area. His long strides and long arms allow him to close down space quickly, meaning those late contests on pull-up jumpers and floaters have more impact than most would, and he also is as good as there is at staying down on shot fakes, trusting that his length will get him blocks not his leaping ability. As a result, he’s rarely in foul trouble (2.4 fouls per game in Milwaukee) while still making a significant impact.
Take his highlights from a recent win over the Clippers, where he flashes his value on both ends of the floor. On defense, he patiently waits for someone to drive into him as the Bucks guards and wings are aggressive in going over screens, knowing he’s always on the back line, ready to absorb contact from a driver and calmly turn shots away at the rim. On offense, he simply navigates his way into space, whether popping to the three-point line, on the short roll to the free throw line, or going all the way to the rim. On occasion, if a mismatch presents itself on the switch, he’ll give himself a post-up as a treat, a reminder that ability on the block is still there, just not always needed or called upon.
Without Lopez’s unique skill set, which changed dramatically in the middle of an already solid career, it’s unlikely Milwaukee reaches the heights they have over the past five seasons, particularly at a bargain of a price. What’s more incredible is that the player he’s become in order to be part of a championship foundation is almost unrecognizable to the one that was an All-Star in 2013. It is one of the great second chapters of a career that we’ve seen in this generation, and while those in Milwaukee certainly recognize that, it shouldn’t be lost on a national level how remarkable his career development has been.