To adapt to new CBA, Bucks went young in draft. How quickly can they develop?


MILWAUKEE — Tyler Smith, the Milwaukee Bucks’ second-round selection in the 2024 NBA Draft, was born on Nov. 2, 2004.

On that same day, Doc Rivers, after a four-plus season run with the Orlando Magic, was preparing for his first game as Boston Celtics’ head coach as their regular-season opener was the next day.

AJ Johnson, the Bucks’ first-round selection, was born on Dec. 1, 2004.  On that same day, the Celtics closed out a 101-100 win over the Bucks in Boston to pick up Rivers’ sixth win as Celtics head coach.

In the 19 years since Smith was born, Rivers has coached 1,763 regular-season and playoff games for four different franchises and won 1,051 of them, including the 2008 NBA championship with the Celtics.

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Bucks go with youth and promise at No. 23, drafting AJ Johnson

On July 2, 2024, Johnson and Smith sat in between Rivers, now the Bucks’ head coach, and general manager Jon Horst at the introductory news conference for Milwaukee’s 2024 draft picks. The difference between the 62-year-old coach and the two 19-year-olds sitting next to him was stark. Horst assured reporters drafting two young prospects and building a group of young players at the bottom of the Bucks roster was part of the team’s plan this offseason.

“Here’s what we like about it: it’s intentional,” Horst said. “We’ve got six returning core guys that we know are ready now to compete at a high level and take us to where we want to go. We’ve got three returning young vets that contributed last year and should take another jump this year in MarJon (Beauchamp), AJ (Green) and Andre (Jackson Jr.). Chris Livingston had a great first year with us. He’s working his ass off and he’s going to be ready to contribute also. And now we’ve got Tyler and AJ pushing them. And we’ve got three spots on our roster right now in free agency that we’re going to go and figure out the best balance in how they fit the rest of that group.

“When you talk about playoff rotations being nine or 10 (players) and shortening as you go deeper … that’s Doc’s wheelhouse. But the balance is intentional. We’ve got really great core depth at the top. We’ve got young veterans that can come in and help and contribute like they did last year and we’re going to add more to this team through free agency. And we’ve got these guys who are going to push them every single day. And it’s on them. It’s on them how hard they want to work and they have the opportunity to contribute and play. When they do that, how quick they do it, how they do it is really up to them and how much they work at it.”

With the new collective bargaining agreement’s punitive rules hitting this summer, especially for second-apron teams such as the Bucks, Horst and his staff made it a priority to select young players. But simply drafting them is not going to be enough.

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Bucks’ draft leans into youth again with Tyler Smith: ‘We’re looking at the long play’

Helping those players develop into rotation players and contributors is the next step. Even if neither Rivers nor Horst would commit to playing time for either rookie immediately in Milwaukee, Rivers believes that having a competitive group of veterans on the roster will make Johnson and Smith, even if they don’t see the floor in games right away.

“The one thing I love about young guys around veterans is there’s always a push-pull,” Rivers said. “The veterans pull these young guys along with their knowledge, with teaching the young guys. But then the young guys push the veterans with their energy and with their willingness and their want to play every night.

“I just like the combination of the two. I can’t tell you (when they’ll play). It’s up to them once we start practicing and playing what they can give us this year. You’ll be hopeful they can give us something. They’re both skilled and they will be quick learners.”

With Damian Lillard starting at point guard and the Bucks’ recent agreement with Delon Wright, the pathway to a sizable role for Johnson is not clear heading into next season. After a year of not playing much in Australia with the Illawarra Hawks as part of the NBL Next Star program, Johnson talked Tuesday about trying to get good as quickly as possible to force Rivers to play him. Johnson also admitted getting to work with Lillard, who spent his final five seasons in Portland mentoring Anfernee Simons, who also entered the NBA at 19 years old, was important.

“I’m really excited to be able to work with somebody like Dame,” Johnson said. “He’s considered one of the greats at the point guard position and I’m just excited to just soak up as much information as I possibly can from them and learn as much as I possibly can.”

While Smith will not have a clear-cut mentor like Johnson will with Lillard, the 19-year-old big man from the G League Ignite will have three big men in front of him who can teach him. Brook Lopez is one of the best drop big defenders in the NBA. Bobby Portis is a great pick-and-pop big man who plays various defensive coverages. Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the league’s best help defenders and one of the league’s great offensive forces. If Smith can take something from all three, he could put himself in a great spot moving forward.

“Just learning. We have a lot of great vets around us. We’re 19 years old,” Smith said. “We have a lot of time to develop here and I feel like we’re going to get better fast, so just keep working and just see what happens.”

Adjusting to the NBA and to a team pushing to contend for a championship will be a tough transition for Johnson and Smith. But as Horst referenced, they will have a cohort of young players on the roster trying to crack Rivers’ rotation. And they will have each other. On Tuesday, Johnson and Smith also revealed that they knew each other a little because they were on the same AAU team in the ninth grade.

Now, however, the Bucks have to do the same thing everyone around the league is attempting to do — something that they’ve struggled to do throughout Jon Horst’s tenure as general manager — develop their young players, while also trying to be one of the NBA’s best teams.

“The balance is what it is,” Rivers said. “We wanted young talent. We did. We think that skill development in our league is becoming more and more important. The more of the young talent you can get to bring up with the veteran talent, the better. And that’s what we’re going to do all summer.

“Free agency is here right now and now, we’re looking for other guys, more veterans, to add to the mix. I like the mix of guys I think we’re going to end up with and it’s exactly the ratio that we want right now.”

Bucks finalize coaching staff

During Tuesday’s news conference, Rivers told reporters that the Bucks have put the finishing touches on his coaching staff for the 2024-25 season. This ends a series of changes that have occurred since he took over in January.

This offseason, the Bucks have added four new coaches to the staff:

  • As reported in June, Darvin Ham will serve as Rivers’ lead assistant coach next season after two seasons as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • As we wrote about in June, Greg Buckner, lead assistant for J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland last season, and Jason Love, a former assistant assistant for the Philadelphia 76ers, will join the staff as well.
  • Tuesday, Rivers revealed that his son, Spencer Rivers, will be joining the coaching staff in Milwaukee from the Detroit Pistons where he was an assistant coach last season.

The Bucks have let go of six coaches from last year’s group:

  • The Bucks dismissed Nate Mitchell during the season.
  • Shortly after the end of this season, the Bucks let go of DJ Bakker, Sidney Dobner, and Josh Oppenheimer.
  • Last week, we reported that the Bucks let go of Patrick Mutombo.
  • On Tuesday, Rivers informed reporters that the Bucks have let go of Trevor Gleeson, who joined Adrian Griffin’s staff in the middle of last season.

With five coaches sticking around from last season, Rivers confirmed a nine-person staff for next season: (lead assistant) Ham, Vin Baker, Buckner, Pete Dominguez, Dave Joerger, Rex Kalamian, Love, Joe Prunty and Spencer Rivers.

(Photo of Doc Rivers, Tyler Smith, AJ Johnson, Jon Horst: Gary Dineen / NBAE via Getty Images)



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