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Scott Howard-Cooper

Illinois' Meyers Leonard is one of several big men the Bucks are eyeing in the Draft.
Courtesy University of Illinois

Bucks face big decisions in search for their next center

Posted Jun 19 2012 10:17AM

Nearly 28 feet of potential NBA center crammed into the Bucks practice facility just south of Milwaukee last Thursday, not counting another 6-foot-10 of assistant coach Joe Wolf, who, if he isn't careful and the roster moves don't go well the next few months, could be pressed into rotation duty.

Meyers Leonard of Illinois and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina were there as the featured attractions, almost certainly bound for the lottery June 28 and perhaps the top 10. Fab Melo of Syracuse was there, likely destined for the end of the first round but possibly early in the second. The emerging Kyle O'Quinn of Norfolk State was there. Andrew Bogut, too. At least his presence, looming over the Cousins Center for the big-man summit that doubled as a Bucks pre-draft workout.

This gathering was prompted by Bogut and the health issues that finally forced Milwaukee to deal him to the Warriors in March. The Bucks traded Bogut for Monta Ellis in the latest attempt to boost scoring and Ekpe Udoh for help at power forward, but Milwaukee heads into summer needing a new center to replace Bogut. And so the Bucks gathered a few days ago in suburban St. Francis to test drive Zeller and Leonard for the No. 12 pick and consider Melo and O'Quinn for later.

Center is the clear direction on a roster where, if the season started today, Drew Gooden would be the starter, just as he was at the end of 2011-12. Larry Sanders, with his length to be a shot blocker and rebounder, and Udoh would play there as well.

"First and foremost, that's our biggest concern," general manager John Hammond said. "We have some size. We just probably need a bigger body to help man the middle for us. Maybe we can do that in a couple ways. Maybe we can do that through the draft. Maybe we can do that through a trade or free agency. Maybe we can add a couple pieces. Who knows? But that's the greatest need. Beyond that, we'd also like to continue to become more athletic. We like our team, but we think we play a little bit below the rim at times. If we could become a little more athletic and get above the rim, more consistently at least, that would be good for us also."

Doing the math is easy: If the Bucks want a center and want athleticism, that's Leonard on both counts. At 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds, Leonard made a big improvement from his freshman to sophomore season at Illinois. But he easily could be gone before 12, maybe as soon as the Pistons at nine. The Trail Blazers also need a center at 11, pending Portland's decision (Connecticut's Andre Drummond?) with No. 6.

Zeller, though similar in size at 7-feet and 245 pounds, is a good contrast. He is more ready to make an immediate NBA impact after four years at North Carolina, compared to Leonard's two seasons, but most teams project a smaller payoff. The consensus is that Zeller could have a long, solid career, while Leonard, needing more patience at first, has a higher NBA ceiling.

Both had good moments that afternoon at the Cousins Center. But it settled nothing if, when decision time comes next Thursday night, one or both of them are off the board. Then, things get very interesting for the Bucks. Not just with the No. 12 pick, either.

Beyond the Draft, these are compelling times for a team trying to revive the 2009-10 Fear the Deer version of the Bucks. Ersan Ilyasova, fresh off a season of significant improvement, and Carlos Delfino both are unrestricted free agents. Brandon Jennings is eligible for an extension.

So the Bucks have to figure out what to do with their current roster, and they have to make a call when it's time to use that No. 12 pick on June 28.

Big decisions all around for the Bucks.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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