You’ll find this Muhammad Ali quote on Malcolm Brogdon’s Instagram page: “It’s the lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself.” It’s an apt mantra for the Bucks rookie guard, who was an unheralded high school recruit and, despite four stellar seasons at Virginia, slipped to the 36th pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Halfway through his first pro campaign, Brogdon leads all qualifying rookies from his draft class in points per game, assists per game, steals per game, and 3-point percentage. If it weren’t for Joel Embiid’s dominance, Brogdon would be the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year. Still, he already looks like the steal of the draft.
Brogdon’s Ali-influenced self-confidence never wavered when we spoke over the phone Tuesday, but when I asked about his achievements he was quick to deflect. “I am a guy that prides myself on my hard work and my efficiency, but I think I’ve stepped into a great situation,” Brogdon said. “I’ve come to a great organization that values what I bring to the table, teammates that value and incorporate me, and I have a coach that believes in me.”
Brogdon went on to cite how even lottery picks can fall into wrong situations that either don’t give them opportunities or simply aren’t right for them. Not all lottery picks are thrust into roles with more than 20 minutes per game, never mind second-rounders. But Brogdon isn’t a normal rookie: He’s 24-years-old and plays like a grizzled veteran with an uncommon feel for the game. Brogdon isn’t rushing-or-dragging Miles Teller; he’s J.K. Simmons shouting “not quite my tempo.” “His basketball IQ is high. He knows how to play the right way, knows how to run a team,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd recently said.
If age truly were just a number, then there’s little doubt Brogdon would’ve been a lottery pick. The Bucks lucked out to snatch him in the second round, and Brogdon’s play has shattered even their loftiest expectations. Milwaukee signed Matthew Dellavedova to a four-year, $38 million contract this offseason to be the Bucks’ secondary facilitator in the starting lineup, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. Brogdon quickly seized that role in early December and has started the last 10 games, after Dellavedova was sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Neither Brogdon nor Dellavedova is really the Bucks’ ball handler, but the team’s unorthodox, aggressive vision allows for another anomaly at the point guard position, in addition to Antetokounmpo. Since December 1, Brogdon has touched, possessed, and passed the ball more times per game than Delly, according to SportVU tracking data. Brogdon has been a better scorer and passer and a significantly more versatile defender, allowing opponents to score only 0.7 points per possession, according to Synergy. The Bucks are 11 points per 100 possessions worse when Antetokounmpo shares the floor with Dellavedova, per NBA.com, compared to 13.5 points per 100 possessions better when Antetokounmpo is on the court with Brogdon.
This isn’t a slight against Dellavedova as much as it is a compliment to Brogdon for being a consistent force on both ends; Delly still has an important role, but Brogdon has just been better. “We trust him as a rookie both offensively and defensively,” Kidd said last month. “He’s taken in the challenge to play a a high level, and we’re holding him accountable to that.”
Brogdon said the key to reliable point guard play is being able to “handle pressure and get us into our sets, get us organized, and get us going.” Brogdon’s 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best of all rookies over the last 20 seasons (by comparison, Chris Paul’s was 3.3, Andre Miller’s was 2.9, and Deron Williams’s was 2.5). What Brogdon does is play at his own pace, control the tempo, and make smart decisions. At 6-foot-5, he’s also able to see over the defense and make passes not all guards can.
Brogdon does the little things in the play above: He pump-fakes to get his defender in the air, snakes to the middle of the floor and attacks to draw the big away from Greg Monroe, and then makes a flashy bounce pass for the dunk. Brogdon told me watching film is “huge” for preparation since every team defends the pick-and-roll differently, which gives him an understanding of player tendencies even before he gets on the court.
This mind-set helped Brogdon improve last summer, when he wasn’t exactly projected as a point guard entering the draft. Though he played the facilitator role exceptionally well at Virginia, he wasn’t the kind of dynamic player we typically associate with the position: He didn’t keep the ball on a string like Kyrie Irving, or have the blinding speed of John Wall, or the leaping ability of Eric Bledsoe. Brogdon was methodical and trustworthy, but not a standout athlete. At the NBA combine, Brogdon told me he was refining his pure point abilities by tightening his handle, and the results have clearly aided him as a rookie.
These skills were important additions to his game, but even if he didn’t have the ability to run point, Brogdon has filled other valuable niches that don’t involve him pounding the rock. That makes sense, considering he isn’t the player you think of when you think “Milwaukee Bucks Point Guard.” Antetokounmpo has the ball more than anyone on the team because, well, why shouldn’t he? The fourth-year star has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. Since the NBA began counting steals and blocks in 1973, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, and Kevin Durant have averaged at least 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and one block, per Basketball-Reference, like Antetokounmpo is this season.
Antetokounmpo’s Hall of Fame–caliber ability means the ball gets taken out of Brogdon’s hands, but he’s found a way to excel as a shooter, too. “I think as a point guard you need to be a threat to be able to knock down open shots and the 3-ball,” Brogdon said. “I think when your point guard in the NBA can’t knock down the 3-ball consistently, it can hurt the team and the defense can pack the paint.”
This season Brogdon is shooting a Kyle Korver–like 46.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, one of the best marks in the league. Brogdon improved his shot each season at Virginia and worked with shooting coach Keith Veney last summer to further refine it. A sample size of 92 3-pointers is small, but, factoring in his free throw percentage (89.5), there are positive signs that his shooting prowess is indeed real.
There are players like Brogdon in every draft who slip for one reason or another, and, more likely than not, the determining factor is age or lack of athleticism. But in the last five years, some of the NBA’s best and brightest have emerged from the latter portion of the draft: Nikola Jokić, selected 41st in 2014, is one of the best young bigs in the NBA; Draymond Green, picked 35th in 2012, is a premier star; Brogdon’s own teammate Khris Middleton went 39th in that same draft. These players have different games, but they’re linked together by two common traits: court sense and basketball IQ. “It’s about mechanics and breaking the game down to an art,” Brogdon said. “That happens by focusing on the fundamentals.”