Changing of the guards
Mayo, Neal, Knight at forefront of transition
One transition game took place during the summer of 2013.
How the next one unfolds will hinge heavily on several of the same participants beginning Oct 30, when the Milwaukee Bucks tip off their 2013-14 season.
Six guards who played a combined 7,914 minutes, attempted 3,357 shots, scored 3,697 points and handed out 1,281 assists last season are no longer wearing Bucks jerseys.
Three of the players who are succeeding them – one acquired by trade and two signed in free agency – will be expected to shoulder much of the responsibility of filling the stat sheet in those aforementioned categories.
And they are embracing that challenge.
O.J. Mayo was the first member of the trio to be brought aboard when the Bucks signed the five-year National Basketball Association veteran to a free-agent contract July 12. The 6-foot-5-inch, 200-pound Mayo, who will turn 26 years old Nov. 5, amassed career averages of 15.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game during four seasons with Memphis and one with Dallas.
Gary Neal, who played in the NBA Finals for the San Antonio Spurs last season, inked a free-agent deal with Milwaukee on July 30. The 6-4, 210 Neal, carries three-year career numbers of 9.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg and 1.7 apg and has 41 NBA Playoff appearances on his resume. Neal, 29, also spent three seasons playing professionally in Italy, Spain and Turkey before joining the Spurs in 2010 and making the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
One day after signing Neal, the Bucks acquired guard Brandon Knight and forwards Khris Middleton and Viacheslav Kravtsov in a trade with the Detroit Pistons. The 6-3, 189 Knight, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday Dec. 2, averaged 13.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg and 3.9 apg over his first two pro seasons for the Pistons. He was an All-Rookie First-Team selection in 2011-12.
One of the factors that attracted Mayo to Milwaukee was the opportunity to earn a starting role. He has played and started 82 games three times in his NBA career, but made just 17 starts – none in 2011-12 – during his other two pro campaigns.
“I think what appealed most to be was it was an organization that wanted me to represent the team and to come in here and show the NBA that I’m a player who can start in this league and help a team win,” Mayo said. “I’m going to do whatever I need to do in order to help this team be successful. If I have to be a tough guy, bite, scratch, whatever. I think if you ask any player or anybody in management, they’ll tell you that’s needed.”
Neal, who has started only 25 of his 204 career NBA games, thrived in a reserve role with San Antonio. He scored in double figures 27 times in 68 games and led the Spurs in scoring six times last season. Neal, too, likes the window of opportunity he sees in Milwaukee.
“It’s an opportunity to have an enhanced role,” Neal said. “When I talked to Coach (Larry) Drew and decided to come to Milwaukee, he talked about what he expected of me and what he was looking to get out of me.
“I think what’s expected of me is to come in here day-in and day-out and work, bust my butt; mentally pick up the offensive and defensive schemes; and just be a solid contributor night-in and night-out who the coaching staff and the rest of the team can rely on.
“This is a big step for me – an enhanced role on an NBA team. I can’t wait to get started.”
Knight, the second-leading scorer in Florida high school basketball history with 3,515 points, was the 2009-10 Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year and the 2008-09 Gatorade National Boys Basketball High School Player of the Year. He set a University of Kentucky freshman scoring record with 657 points and helped the Wildcats reach the Final Four for the first time since 1998 before being selected by the Pistons with the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Shortly after being dealt to the Bucks, Knight began building a bond with his new coach.
“Coach Drew came to see me at my home and we met here,” Knight said. “We talked numerous times during the summer about how this year will be. That was definitely important so I have an understanding … not only that, but if I’m going to be the point guard, I have to have a certain communication with the coach and establish a rapport before training camp.”
Knight was asked at Bucks Media Day if he considers himself a leader.
“Instinctively, I think I am,” he replied. “I can’t say I’m the leader of this team right now, because we’re all new faces. We haven’t been together much. But I do see myself being a leader eventually because I’m going to follow my instincts.
“I’ve had conversations with Coach Drew, not about leadership per se, but about communication and not being quiet … being an extension of Coach Drew. I don’t have a problem being vocal, but I’m also a guy who can lead by example.”
Mayo looks forward to the 11 new Bucks and the four holdovers from last season working together toward a common goal.
“I think when you have 11 new guys, who could have 11 new agendas going on,” Mayo said. “I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. If we all come and do our job individually as best we can and have an attitude of not caring who the next pass goes to or who has the hot hand tonight and just play ball the right way night-in and night-out, that’ll give us the best chance of winning.
“If we play basketball the right way -- the way we learned how to play when we were 7, 8 years old -- I think the fans will respect us. We all have to come out with an unselfish attitude and understand that winning’s the most important thing.”
Yes, a transition is underway.