Happy returns

Bucks’ four veterans embrace changes, welcome unity

Truman Reed: Happy Returns

The Milwaukee Bucks Training Center – just like the team’s roster – has a dramatically different look than it did last spring.

“They’ve done different things with the place,” said center Larry Sanders, who signed a multiyear contract extension over the summer following his breakout 2012-13 season. “It’s a better feel, a great atmosphere.”

And according to the four players returning from last year’s squad, the difference in the room’s atmosphere extends far beyond the paint job and decor. The new lines of communication that have been installed have been obvious early, they say.

Sanders believes the most tangible changes began when Larry Drew was hired as the team’s 13th head coach on June 3, 2013.

“I would say ‘L.D.’ – Coach Drew -- coming in, has done a great job of establishing unity,” Sanders said. “I think that’s something that’s definitely been missing.

“A team needs guys to be crutches for each other through adversity, when situations get tough. The NBA schedule is going to have its grinds, and we’ve got to have each other’s backs. That’s the mind-set he’s brought in. That’s been missing.”

Chemistry issues that beset the team for the past several seasons came to a head and prevented the team from playing to its capabilities last season.

“I would just say guys weren’t pointed in the same direction,” Sanders said. “We had guys who were kind of in their own corner; guys looking forward to the summer; guys looking forward to the playoffs; guys who wished we weren’t in the playoffs.

“No one was on the same page, and it showed. We got what we deserved, which was getting swept (in an opening-round playoff series by Miami).”

Bucks management made a dramatic overhaul of the team’s roster, retaining only Sanders, forward Ersan Ilyasova, forward/center John Henson and forward/center Ekpe Udoh from last season’s squad.

Brand-new to the equation are forwards Caron Butler, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, guards O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Gary Neal and Nate Wolters and center Miroslav Raduljica. Back with the Bucks after previous successful stints with the team are center Zaza Pachulia, guard Luke Ridnour and forward/guard Carlos Delfino.

Udoh was asked about his new teammates.

"Hopefully I'll recognize them,” he said on the eve before training camp began. “They did a great job this summer providing new faces for the team. Now we've just got to put it together.

“This is a new beginning. We have 11 new faces. We're all starting together fresh. We have to learn fast and get it going. It has to come fast. We play the Knicks at their place in our first game. We have to be ready."

Ilyasova welcomed the revamped roster, too.

“It’s almost the whole team,” he said. “We’ve only got four guys left from the old team. Sometimes that’s what it takes to be a good team – change some things. I think the change can be really positive if we can find some chemistry, get on the same page and move forward as a team.”

Sanders agreed.

““I can’t speak for anyone who hasn’t been here,” he said. “But I think the guys who have been here, including Carlos before last year, want to see something new. Our seasons have come up short, or we’ve lost 10 games in a row, or whatever. It (lack of chemistry) rears its ugly head. It hurts the team. I think we can all say that during those tough situations, we didn’t jell together. We went off in our own corners. And it hurt us.

“The organization did a great job of fitting this together, to build on the tradition we started last year We were a playoff team. I think this team can make a playoff run and build on the success we had last year. With Coach Drew bringing his philosophy of having the team work together and establishing chemistry, we can only go up.”

The chemistry building got a jump start when Butler, the Racine native who was acquired by Milwaukee in an Aug. 29 trade with the Phoenix Suns, treated the entire team to dinner before training camp even began.

“That was definitely good for our guys,” Sanders said. “We have a lot of different players coming from different situations and not knowing what to expect. It’s comforting knowing that we’re here together. We’re not out here on our own.

“We’re a team now. We’re going to have each other’s backs. Guys don’t have to worry about being in a different place or a foreign country. Guys are going to be here for each other and start a family atmosphere. I think Caron did a good job of that.”

Henson, who averaged 6 points, 4.7 rebounds and .8 blocks in 63 games during his rookie season, showed flashes of brilliance with outings of 17 points and 18 rebounds against Miami on Nov. 21 and 17 points, 25 rebounds and seven blocks on April 10 against Orlando.

Henson said his rookie campaign taught him a great deal, and he hopes he can expand his game like Sanders did last season.

“I think it was a solace knowing I can rebound at this level,” he said. “I would like to have more consistent efforts like 20 and 18. I think that’s my goal this year. I’ve matured so much over the past year. I’ve got a much different mind-set coming into this camp. I’m not as nervous. I’m not looking around, trying to figure out what to do. I think that’ll help me out.

“Larry made a tremendous jump from his first two years to his third. I think I can improve like that, but not try to do too much. I want to be a contributing factor to this team every night. Seeing him get his contract extension is motivational. If you play the game hard and play it the right way, motivationally, I think they’ll take care of you.”

Ilyasova, at the age of 26, leads the Bucks in tenure with five seasons under his belt. He is grateful to remain a member of the team, and he looks forward to helping his reconstructed team arrive on the same page and then begin turning pages together.

“I was drafted in 2006 along with Andrew Bogut,” he said. “He was traded. It’s great to continue being part of the franchise. When I look at the last two seasons, we were kind of up and down. Our goal has always been to be a playoff team. I think we have to change our goal and first just try to be consistent. And once we become a playoff team, our goal has to be to move forward. If we make the first round, we want to make the second.

“I’m looking forward to it. However many years I have left, I’m looking forward to being with the Milwaukee Bucks forever.”