If you’re a diehard college basketball stan who shuns the NBA, you’re not alone. Yet it’s worth rethinking your strict stance because the Association has more to offer than just pettiness, feuds, martyrs, Jeff Van Gundy, pettiness, and the unstoppable force that is NBA Twitter. The basketball is really good to watch, and if you consider it to be unruly, sloppy, or not as refined and fundamental as college, Big Ten, or, especially, Badger basketball, have you watched the Spurs play? Complain all you want—that’s your prerogative—but the NBA at least offers you the chance to keep watching your favorite college basketball players hoop it up at the next level while being financially compensated.
The Wisconsin Badgers’ recent graduating class is one of the most successful in the school’s history, but its seniors lack the top-tier NBA talent previously found in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, both first-round picks in 2015. Two players stand out from the 2017 graduating class, and unlike the much-discussed one-and-dones parading from the NCAA to the first round (DraftExpress.com’s projected top 10 picks all fulfilled the one-year minimum post-high school requirement and NBA commissioner Adam Silver is rethinking the rule itself) the Badgers’ top pro prospects each played out their four allotted seasons in college to the fullest. We’ll take a look at their skill sets, deficiencies, what they could bring to an NBA team, and what their futures may hold.
The Wisconsin-born and bred Bronson Koenig is less discussed than Nigel Hayes, but Koenig arguably lived up to his potential more so than the Ohio native and showed marked improvement each year. We’ve already covered Hayes’s pro prospects, so let’s focus on Koenig, the La Crosse, Wis., product who turned down offers from ACC powerhouses Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia to attend his home state’s university and join a burgeoning Big Ten powerhouse. Koenig played crucial backup-point guard minutes his freshman season behind Traevon Jackson en route to a Final Four, and the following season he was thrust into the starting lineup when Jackson went down with an ankle injury. Koenig put up 10 points and four assists in the Badgers’ loss to Duke in the national championship (by far one of the saddest campus-wide 24-hour stretches during my time at UW-Madison).
After Wisconsin lost the only senior class that rivaled his own in production and talent, Koenig became one of the faces of Badger basketball, handling expectations with class and hard work until the true face of 21st-century Badger basketball retired mid-season. Koenig was a crucial cog in turning around the Badgers’ 2016-17 campaign, ultimately helping to continue a 19-year streak of making it to the NCAA tournament en route to a Sweet 16 berth where his legendary clutch play cemented itself in Badger fans minds...
...and, in the process and arguably more impressively, creating an incredible, enduring meme.
As a senior, Koenig showed improved leadership on a young team lacking the depth everyone expected going into the season. He worked through a debilitating calf injury and missed only the second game of his 148-game career (the first being the second game of his freshman year), and the offseason leading into this senior year showed his dedication and passion for the game as he matured as a person and a player, changing his body and working to develop his game for the next level.
Over four years, Koenig flashed an outstanding ability to get buckets—especially in one-on-one situations—and run the Badgers’ patented swing offense. It’s important to remember, though, that he also ran the souped-up Badger offense ranked No. 1 in the country at 127.0 adjusted offensive efficiency via kenpom.com his sophomore year, an offense that scrapped the basics of the swing offense to facilitate and maximize the potency of its lineup. That explains Koenig’s 16.1 assist rate that season, when he averaged 2.5 per game and proved his ability to find the open man when he has weapons around him.
Koenig’s ball handling is very solid, but it isn’t anything to marvel at. Just like most Badgers, he didn’t turn the ball over, which is very important. His patented move is the step-back crossover that he consistently uses to get an open jump shot from anywhere on the court. Whether he’s pulling up off the dribble or running around screens for a catch-and-shoot opportunity, the mechanics of Koenig’s jump shot are a fundamentally sound piece of artwork molded by his father and formed from years of practice and hard work. That shot is Koenig’s ticket to the NBA, an evolving league that’s transitioning into a pace-and-space era built upon versatility, speed, and the long ball.
Of his 462 shot attempts last season, 262 were from behind the arc (60.6 percent) and only 72 percent of those were assisted, according to Hoop-math.com. Koenig shot over 39 percent on his long balls and hovered around 40 percent in his final three seasons at Wisconsin, a consistent mark that should project well at the NBA level. Koenig posted his highest true shooting percentage at 56.5 percent his senior season with a 53.8 effective field goal percentage. He shot 90 percent on free throws last season, a skill that also signifies solid form and pro-ready skills. However, that brings up a major deficiency in Koenig’s game: his lack of explosiveness and difficulty getting to the rim in the flow of the game.
At nearly 6’3 and just over 190 pounds, Koenig is solidly built for a point guard, especially after he seriously altered his body composition last offseason. Theoretically, that extra size makes him tougher to bully or push around on the perimeter, or if he ever worked in the post (seeing guards work in the post is one of my favorite things to see out of the swing offense). That bulk hinders his athleticism, which is very average, and his explosiveness, which is most prevalent in his very slow first step. His underwhelming speed forces him to rely on his steady step-back jumper because he can’t get around most defenders off the dribble, and even if he gets around them he lacks the explosion and length to be a force at the rim. His 6’4 wingspan is respectable, but not long enough to finish at the the rim off low-quality leaps or find teammates around long-limbed loblolly rim protectors.
Koenig prefers barreling to the rim off the dribble over cutting to it back-door in the flow of the offense (as Zak Showalter) was wont to do, but he expects his dynamic shooting and step-back to keep defenders on their toes enough to catch them off-guard to attack the rim. In the NBA, most defenders will be fast enough to defend him primarily to deny the step-back and use their quickness or help defense to recover if he’s able to get around them with that nasty, wide crossover of his.
Even if Koenig is attacking the rim, he’s unlikely to leap into and absorb contact while launching an airborne shot at the rim. Lacking the leap and aerial acrobatics that make Kyrie Irving, a 6’2 point guard with a similar 6’4 wingspan, the most threatening finisher around the rim, Koenig usually pulls up or hangs in the air long enough to drop a floater toward the rim. Koenig’s measly 14.6 free-throw rate last season was a 10-point drop-off from the 25.0 free-throw rate of his sophomore and junior seasons. His thicker build gives him the ability to play through that contact and finish at the basket because he won’t be knocked off his mid-air route as much with that extra Wisconsin bulk many of us also carry year round. Being battered and bruised through 82 games is tough for any rookie, so Koenig’s bulk, age, and toughness would so help him get through the slog of the NBA season.
As a playmaker, Koenig had much less work in a pro-style offense than many point guards as the Badgers relied on a steady dose of the swing to lull opponents into late-shot clock lapses for easier buckets. There were times, however, when Koenig used his high basketball IQ, elite court vision, and feel for the game to navigate the pick-and-roll to either find shooters like Vitto Brown and Showalter on the weak side for an open shot or thread the ball to Hayes or Ethan Happ rolling to the basket, where they’re most effective.
Koenig isn’t going to blow teams away on the defensive end. Defense is a primary factor that made an older second-round pick in Malcolm Brogdon a lower-risk pick for the Milwaukee Bucks. Koenig’s athleticism and speed once again hinder his ability to excel on defense, but he has solid fundamentals and understands defensive principles. That’s what sets Badger prospects apart from some high-upside, physically talented prospects (some of whom forgo their home state’s team) who choose the bluebloods of college basketball. Wisconsin develops players and teaches them great fundamentals; unfortunately, NBA teams are often looking for risky, high-upside options.
Koenig’s intelligence and feel for the game do make him a productive team defender. He’s also an adept help defender, and his size will help him body up and hold his own against bigger point guards or shooting guards to deter any attempts to bowl him over. However, he’ll struggle to move his feet fast enough to stay in front of fast-twitch point guards and his wingspan isn’t long enough to significantly bother shots on the perimeter on a consistent basis. He did post his highest block and steal rates in his senior season at 1.2 and 1.3 respectively, so Koenig should be able to switch onto small forwards if needed, but it’s not his strong suit, especially if he’s among the giants when a shot goes up.
Rebounding is a part of Koenig’s game that never materialized at Wisconsin, as he averaged only 2.1 rebounds per game last year. Playing with the likes of Kaminsky, Hayes, Happ, and Brown doesn’t make it easy to hit the boards, and he’s more comfortable hanging on the perimeter where he’s most dangerous anyway. Obviously Wisconsin’s slower-paced style of play makes rebounding point guards less important because they’re content to have a big man secure a rebound and then find the guard to bring the ball up. Koenig has the ability to do some damage in transition, and it would be exciting to see him play a faster-paced, transition-heavy style. He’s got the savvy to attack the rim off the dribble when defenders are still recovering and he’s got a head of steam, or he could pull up or spot up for a long ball.
The Badgers’ all-time three-point leader is marred by the stigma of being a four-year college player and underwhelming physical tools and explosiveness, but Koenig’s a smart basketball player and a hard worker. He’s shown maturity in his personal life and in his dedication to the game of basketball. Some teams and executives covet the heart and desire players like Koenig show. His jump shot is an evergreen skill for every NBA team and the ability to shoot off the dribble, when spotting up, or by creating his own shot sets him apart from a lot of guards. Koenig also doesn’t shy away from the spotlight—especially when the game is on the line.
It’s unlikely that Koenig will be picked in the draft on Thursday, but if some team fell in love with him, he’ll have a great chance of making a summer-league team in July. With the development of the NBA’s G-League (formerly the D-League and now sponsored by Gatorade), there are even more opportunities for college players to make it to the NBA. In the latest NBA collective bargaining agreement, a new rule was put in place for teams to have two “two-way contracts” where players can freely move between the professional team and its G-League affiliate. So far, Koenig has worked out for his home-state team, the Bucks, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Los Angeles Lakers. He also struggled through an ankle injury he suffered at the Portsmouth Invitational in April that continued to nag him at workouts.
So many teams are looking for shooting in the NBA that I wouldn’t be surprised if one takes a chance on Koeing as an undrafted free agent. The Pacers are in disarray with an uncertain future, and they were tasked with playing a faster, more spaced-out style last season. Koenig would help them at either guard position if they go with a smaller lineup, and he’d probably be a better teammate than Monta Ellis.
The Orlando Magic, another team in a dark purgatory for a few years, have an oddly constructed roster devoid of shooting, chock full of big men, and with a young point guard they’re unsure of in Elfrid Payton. Koenig’s shooting would space their team out greatly and could make him a solid backup point guard.
The New Orleans Pelicans took a home-run swing in trading for DeMarcus Cousins during All-Star Weekend last year, and it didn’t pay off in the first half-season. Koenig is no stranger to dishing it into a big man down low. This offseason, they face the task of resigning Jrue Holiday and tying up most of their cap space for the near term. If they do that, they’ll be looking for a cheap option to back up Holiday, who can shoot, and that’s exactly where Koenig could find his niche in the league.