By ZACH HAYES
Special to ESPNMilwaukee.com
Many Bucks fans couldn’t help but smile last June when Jon Leuer was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft. After all, he was a fan favorite, a Wisconsin Badgers star for four years and an honorable mention All-American who was the leader of a senior class that totaled 100 career victories in Madison.
Skilled, versatile and possessing the height of a prototypical NBA power forward, Leuer’s immediate impact has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations early in his debut season.
On a night when headliners Brandon Jennings and Stephen Jackson couldn’t find their outside touch and Andrew Bogut (7 for 20) struggled in 30 foul-plagued minutes, it was Leuer’s spark off the bench that rescued the Bucks during a 98-95 victory over Minnesota on Tuesday night at the Bradley Center.
With the Bucks missing forwards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (knee), Carlos Delfino (wrist) and Drew Gooden (suspension), Leuer played 20 minutes and scored 14 points, grabbed eight rebounds and made all four of his free throws.
“Jon was great,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. “He’s been good since the beginning of camp. I probably should have played him more (Monday) night (in the season-opening loss at Charlotte). He’s earned his minutes out there. He’s trying to learn what we’re doing so you have to have a full comfort level until you know exactly what’s going on, but he’s been very good and was a big factor tonight.”
The third-quarter woes that plagued Milwaukee on Monday were quickly reversed during the home opener. The Bucks extended a 12-point halftime lead to as much as 20 after a Jennings layup midway through the third, but a ferocious Minnesota rally and an all-too-familiar Milwaukee scoring drought cut the lead to two with 1:40 left.
Leuer’s biggest contribution came when Jennings found his rookie teammate under the basket for a three-point play that extended the lead to five during the game’s most crucial moment.
“It felt good because we got the win,” Leuer said. “That was the biggest thing, getting the first win of the season. It was big for us, it was fun. We bounced back a little bit more (than last night) when they made their run and we made enough plays to get it done.”
The former first team all-Big Ten forward, who grew up in Minnesota, received a raucous ovation both during pre-game warmups and during his first entrance of the game, applause that only grew when Leuer’s 16-footer a minute later found the bottom of the net.
“That’s the Badger love I guess, a little bit,” Leuer said. “They were great fans for me my four years at Wisconsin. I’m glad I get to keep playing for them.”
“I’m a big fan of Jon Leuer,” veteran guard Stephen Jackson said. “He works hard and he hit some big shots for us tonight. We’re going to need him to be successful. I’m just happy he played well.”
Skiles was pleased with Leuer’s performance, and also happy with the way his team responded to another second-half rough patch. By continuing to play tough-minded defense, forcing 26 turnovers and holding Minnesota to just 40 percent shooting, the Bucks withstood Minnesota’s run. The Wolves ran off a 15-6 streak during the fourth quarter that gradually turned a rout into a nail-biter not settled until the waning seconds, when Kevin Love’s game-tying three-point attempt bounced off the rim and into the arms of Leuer.
“We had a lot of good moments like we did (Monday) night,” Skiles said. “Unfortunately, in both games we got a little careless. Offensively all the good ball movement has come to a halt, we shot into double teams and rushed things a little bit. At the same time we kind of softened up defensively.”
“Brandon made a couple of plays near the end and we were able to get a couple of stops. We know we need to play better than that. Every team in all these games is going through a sloppy part. Ours in both nights has just happened to be when we have a nice lead.”
The Bucks won’t be depending on Leuer for 14 points every night. That’s simply too much to ask from a rookie second-round pick, especially when his minutes wane as Mbah a Moute, Delfino and Gooden return. With more glimpses like he showed tonight, there’s little doubt Leuer will earn ample opportunities to provide productive front-court minutes off an unsettled Bucks bench.
“I saw him, he was working out with Team USA I think before his senior year at Wisconsin, so I knew he was a pretty good player,” Timberwolves forward Kevin Love said, who paced Minnesota with 31 points and 20 rebounds. “I’ve actually known him since my high school days. He’s a legit 6’10” and can shoot the ball. He’s going to be a good player in this league.”