Beasley, Beauchamp, and Jackson Offer Identity and Flexibility to Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 2023-24 season with resounding certainty up and down most of the starting lineup -- and a question mark at one position. 

At the point guard position, Damian Lillard is a seven-time All-NBA player, and his acquisition this summer revolutionized Milwaukee’s roster. Khris Middleton is a three-time All-Star small forward. Giannis Antetokounpmo of course needs no introduction, but the two-time MVP is ensconced at power forward. Center Brook Lopez leads the league in blocks over the last two seasons by a wide margin. Those positions are settled, and what the team needs from each spot is relatively unchanging from game to game, possession to possession. Their roles are defined.

That is not true of the shooting guard spot. What Milwaukee needs there is nebulous and shifting. Milwaukee’s opportunity at the two-spot was created by roster churn; seventy-five percent of last year’s non-garbage-time possessions featured a shooting guard who is no longer on the roster. This year, Milwaukee is largely filling the minutes with free-agent signing Malik Beasley, rookie Andre Jackson jr., and holdover MarJon Beauchamp. Now 74 percent of Milwaukee’s non-garbage-time shooting-guard minutes go to one of those three.

The differing identities between the three players has offered the team flexibility between its own overarching identities.

Between the three of Beasley, Jackson, and Beauchamp, the Bucks have more diversity at the shooting-guard spot than at any other position. There is less certainty in terms of what any of the three individuals will provide the team at any specific moment; however, that means there is more space to adapt and shift to fit any situation. More room for experimentation. In many ways, Milwaukee’s ability to alter its identity and transform into whatever it needs derives directly from its three-headed hydra at shooting guard. 
Beasley is a marksman. He’s obviously a terrific shooter, hitting 46.4 percent of his triples, the best mark in the league among players with at least 100 attempts. But his skills cascade into benefits that aren’t reflected in his box-score numbers. He’s able to attempt shots that other shooters don’t, largely because any motion into his jumpers is a positive, not a negative as it is for most players. He can sprint around screens before launching a jumper, or he can shuffle his feet in any direction to make sure he’s behind the line, or to avoid contests.

Malik Beasley movement threes

According to Second Spectrum, he shoots better on catch-and-shoot triples with movement entering the shot, at 62.5 percent accuracy. It’s the best mark in the league among 92 players to have attempted at least 20 movement catch-and-shoot triples. That efficiency likely won’t last all season -- not even Steph Curry has ever hit triples like that. But being able to make shots when others wouldn’t even attempt them has other benefits beyond the ball simply going in the basket. Liillard and Antetokounmpo see less defensive attention, wider driving lanes, and less help at the nail.

Milwaukee has also used Beasley as a weapon after other players move the defense. Antetokounmpo causes defensive collapse when he runs pick and roll, so a quick swing to Beasley for his own action means he is facing only one level of defense rather than multiple. His shooting as a second-side creator in those cases is deadly; he can use a hit-ahead dribble in the pick and roll for an open pull-up triple -- because he is facing a defense that has already accordioned in and back out.

Malik Beasley pull-up 3

The team’s offensive rating is 123.7 with Beasley on the court and neither Jackson nor Beauchamp, which would be the best team-wide offensive rating in the league. When Milwaukee wants to open the court for its stars, to juice its offense and rain fire from deep, Beasley is frequently the best available option at shooting guard. As a result, among the three options, Beasley is the starter and plays the most minutes.

Jackson is an enormously gifted athlete, the only player to have ranked top five in his rookie class for both three-quarter court sprint and maximum vertical leap in anthro measurements. And yet his greatest ability isn’t created by his body but instead by his brain.
He benefits the Bucks by making immediate choices. In fact, he has the lowest average touch time among all three of Milwaukee’s shooting guards, lower even than the shooter Beasley. But what’s most impressive is that Jackson makes such rapid choices despite rarely shooting; it’s much easier to do something quickly when the ball reaches your hands if you decide to shoot. Jackson is a supercomputer at figuring out what to do without firing the ball at the rim. In fact, among all players who have average touch times lower than 2.0 seconds and at least 100 touches on the season, Jackson has the 13th-lowest rate of shots per touch, according to Second Spectrum.

Andre Jackson Jr. quick decisions

And when Jackson does shoot, he has been incredibly efficient, with the fourth-highest true-shooting percentage in the league. However, any scoring from Jackson is a cherry on top of the sundae of his movement. He is a terrific cutter with a nose for empty lanes, and he frequently dashes into the paint, receives the ball, and pings it elsewhere before the defense even knows he moved. Sometimes that means he passes up good shots for himself, but in general his motion means the offense improves its possessions as a result of his touching the ball. He’ll pivot on one possession between cutting, on-ball screening, cutting, and then sealing just to create an open driving lane for a teammate.

Perhaps his best trait on the offensive end is that he’s always doing something. He’ll bounce between actions like he’s a pinball. As a result, he’s a great infusion of pace and dynamism to transfer the advantages created by others to teammates who are more open elsewhere on the court. If Milwaukee’s offense bogs down, Jackson is the ultimate pace changer. 

Meanwhile, Beauchamp represents the third pitch in the bag. If Beasley complements the stars with his jumper and Jackson with his movement, Beauchamp lets them rest with his ability to step into larger roles when needed. 

Beauchamp doesn’t often play alongside the stars, with only 93 minutes on the season with all three of Lillard, Antetokounmpo, and Beauchamp on the court. (Although Adrian Griffin is using Beauchamp much more alongside the two superstars in recent games.) He complements them well. So far though, he has more often been used as a secondary initiator when one of the two superstars is on the bench.  

The minutes are small, but so far Beauchamp has stepped well into larger roles. His usage rate jumps almost seven percentage points when he plays without Lillard and more than three percentage points when he plays without Antetokounmpo. Far more importantly, the Bucks have a net rating over plus-11 when he plays alongside Lillard without Antetokounmpo or Antetokounmpo without Lillard. He runs more picks, spends more time attacking the rim, and creates more shots for himself. He can initiate possessions himself, even showing off impressive footwork in the middle of the floor to create against locked-in defenses.

MarJon Beauchamp midrange footwork

When Beauchamp receives a dribble handoff, the Bucks average 1.43 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. Among players who have received 20 or more handoffs on the season, that efficiency ranks third overall. Much of Milwaukee’s success in those moments is due to the small sample size of such actions, but Beauchamp does a great job of forcing the defense to commit before finding teammates in advantageous spots.

MarJon Beauchamp handoff passing

Beauchamp isn’t going to make an All-Star team this year, but he can do the job of one in short spurts. Beauchamp is a bench leader. He hasn’t been used to lift the team’s ceiling, as has Beasley, but instead to make sure the floor doesn’t drop when the stars sit. When he is the lone shooting guard, playing without either Beasley or Jackson, Milwaukee’s offensive rating is 124.1.

Perhaps the best example of all three players’ abilities working in concert over the course of a single game came in Milwaukee’s Nov. 15 win against the Toronto Raptors. Each helped shift Milwaukee’s form during his minutes. To end the first quarter, Beauchamp stopped a Toronto fastbreak and drove the ball through two defenders for his own layup. Creation. To end the first half, Beasley hit a drifting, fading triple to beat the buzzer. Shooting. And early in the third quarter, Jackson cut across the lane on a Middleton post-up, received the ball, and dished it back behind him to Lopez for an easy dunk. Pace.

While Milwaukee can comfortably field any one of Beasley, Jackson, or Beauchamp, the statistics are stark with none of the three. In 158 minutes with none of the three players on the court, Milwaukee has a net rating of negative-13.5. (That’s worse than the worst team-wide net rating in the league at the moment.) Beasley, Jackson, and Beauchamp may represent a three-headed hydra of versatility, but they also represent a requirement for the Bucks; identity can be malleable, so long as you have one. 

Identity in the NBA is an amorphous relationship between the individual and the collective. And while all three of Beasley, Jackson, or Beauchamp are in the midst of solidifying their own individual identities in the league, that nebulousness is a weapon when applied to the whole. The collective identities of Milwaukee are made manifest by the play of the three shooting guards. And no team in the NBA can win in today’s day and age by playing just one way. Even the Bucks had to shift their play the last time they won a championship. Now, perhaps more than ever, Milwaukee is able to shapeshift into different iterations of itself when it’s required. That is only possible because of the varied responsibilities and abilities of Milwaukee’s three shooting guards.