Bucks pay steep price for Horst’s draft blunder

The Milwaukee Bucks have clearly demonstrated the last two seasons they’re one of the best teams in the NBA.

They posted the league’s best regular-season records in each of the last two seasons before flaming out in the playoffs:  They lost in the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago and then imploded in the second-round against Miami this season.

While not retaining standout guard Malcolm Brogdon and trading him to Indiana last summer was a monumental mistake and major reason for the Bucks premature exit from the playoffs this season, there was another much more underpublicized abysmal decision by Bucks general manager Jon Horst that damaged the Bucks’ title hopes.

Horst’s major blunder occurred during the 2017 NBA draft, which was Horst’s first significant decision after being hired as the team’s GM just a few weeks earlier. In leading up to that draft, it was a common knowledge around the NBA the Bucks had honed in on drafting a forward with their first-round pick.

It meant Horst’s section would likely come from a group of forwards that included John Collins of Wake Forest, T.J. Leaf of UCLA, Kyle Kuzma of Utah and D.J. Wilson of Michigan.

In interviews with more than a half dozen NBA GMs and scouts prior to the 2017 draft, the overwhelming opinion among those officials was that Collins was the best of the lot. Some were luke-warm on Leaf and Kuzma. Nobody had Wilson as their top choice. One longtime respected talent evaluator didn’t like Wilson at all and gave him a second-round grade on his draft report.

But Horst, who arrogantly proclaimed he was a “basketball expert’’ at the press conference when he was named Bucks’ GM, chose to pick Wilson.

It was a colossal mistake.

Wilson has played only 107 games in his three seasons with the Bucks and started just four of them. His career scoring average is 4.3 points; His career rebounding average is 3.0.

Even though the Bucks blew out opponents with regularity during the regular season, Wilson seldom left the bench. He appeared in a mere 30 games. He shot a dismal 39 percent from the field and 24 percent from 3-point range.

Perhaps Wilson will eventually find his way in the league, but it hasn’t been about the future with the Bucks. It was about last season and this season and perhaps next season. It’s about taking full advantage of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s immense talents and realizing the clock on him remaining in Milwaukee is precariously ticking.

Antetokounmpo’s precarious uncertain status is precisely why there has been an infusion of veteran frontcourt players the last two seasons i.e. Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, Kyle Korver, Nikola Mirotic and Marvin Williams.

But acquiring of those vets wouldn’t have been necessary if Horst had simply done what the vast majority of GMs and scouts would have done in that ’17 draft and selected Collins.

Unlike Wilson, whose NBA career may be on a respirator, Collins’ future looks so bright. He’s already performing at a near All-Star level. Collins, who was taken two picks after Wilson by the Atlanta Hawks, was an all-NBA Rookie second team selection. Then, in his second season, he posted a near double-double by averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds.

This season, Collins emerged as one of the most promising young players in the game. He averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds. He also effectively shot the 3-ball and would have fit in perfectly with the Bucks’ “Let ’em fly’’ offense. He connected on 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

And here’s one other striking stat that further illustrated how Horst and Co. blew their pick: player efficiency rating. The 22-year-old Collins ranked 14th in the entire league in that category this season at 23.5.

The 13 players who finished ahead of Collins are virtually a ‘’Who’s Who’’ of NBA stars. To wit:

  1. Antetokounpo – 31.9
  2. James Harden, Houston – 29.1
  3. Luka Doncic, Dallas – 27.6
  4. Anthony Davis, LA Lakers – 27.4
  5. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers – 26.9
  6. Damian Lillard, Portland – 26.5
  7. Karl-Antony Towns, Minnesota – 26.5
  8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia – 25.8
  9. LeBron James, LA Lakers – 25.5
  10. Hassan Whiteside, Portland — 25.0
  11. Nikola Jokic, Denver – 24.9
  12. Trae Young, Atlanta – 23.9
  13. Jimmy Butler, Miami – 23.6

Before that 2017 draft, Horst boasted “We’re going to get (pick) 17 right and we’re going to get 48 right.’’

Horst got both of them wrong.

After picking Wilson at 17, Horst took Sindarius Thornwell at 48. Thornwell was then traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for cash and is now out of the league.

“Picking Wilson and not picking Collins was a mistake, a big mistake,’’ an Eastern Conference official said last week. “I said that when Milwaukee took him. I know our group wouldn’t have taken him that high. Definitely not in the first round. He wasn’t even that good of a college player. He played well in the (NCAA) tournament, but you don’t pick a guy just for that.

“I think his numbers in Atlanta are a little skewed. He’s been playing on a bad team. Would he have started for Milwaukee? Maybe. But you know he would have definitely been in the rotation and really helped them with his offensive rebounding – he’s really good at cleaning up missed shots –his outside shooting – he’s a legitimate 3-point shooter and his versatility as a 4-5 or 5-4.

“He would have played a lot for Milwaukee versus the other guy (Wilson). One guy (Wilson) is going to be out of the league soon I believe and the other guy (Collins) is going to be a very good player for quite a long time.’’