AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps

One of the most news-worthy items of the week (from an Aussie NBA fans’ perspective), was John Hollinger’s look at the In-Season All-Improved team. Readers of this blog will know I’m not always a fan of Hollinger’s work, but this time round can I just say a massive THANK YOU John for recognising the mid-season jump our Bogut has made. I already touched on it in my Bogometer piece a week ago, and it is simply irrefutable – Andrew Bogut is one of the most in-form players in the league right now. There’s a lot of numbers I could point to in order to prove it, but my favourite is this: over his last 10 games Bogut is averaging a phenomenal 3.8 blocks per game. Or I could just point to Hollinger’s write up, which you’ll need an Insider account to read, but luckily for you I look after my Aussie NBA brethren (thanks Dave):

I chided Bogut on Wednesday for his poor secondary percentage, but he’s come a long way. Now that he’s finally been able to say healthy for a full season, he’s developing his arsenal of low-post jump hooks and rounding out the rough edges in his game. He’s averaging a double-double on 55 percent shooting since Jan. 1, and crushing his career-high in PER; if we could redo the vote today he would almost certainly make the All-Star team.

While Bogut’s offensive development has been impressive, his defensive transformation has been downright shocking, and isn’t getting nearly the attention it should. Always a fierce, physical defender, he’s picked up a knack for shot-blocking from nowhere. Bogut has increased his blocks average every month; his five rejections Wednesday night pushed his average to 2.4 per game, second only to Orlando’s Dwight Howard — and more than double his mark from last season.

It’s no coincidence that over Bogut’s super 10-game block-fest the Bucks are 9-1. The only team with a better record over their last 10 games is the Mavericks who are a flawless 10-0. What does this mean? Two things:

1) The Bucks are playoff contenders for real and will enter a very tight race with Toronto (currently equal), Miami (1.5 games behind), Chicago (2 games behind) and Charlotte (2.5 games behind) for the coveted 5th seed in the East. It’s no secret these teams would much rather take their chances against Atlanta in the first round than the Cavs, Celtics or Magic. Right now, there is no doubt Milwaukee is at the head of that pack, and on current form should cruise to a 5th place finish. From a historic context, finishing with around 45 wins (their current pace) would be their best regular season since 2000-2001 when they lost the Eastern Conference Finals. It would also be their second best regular season record since 1990-1991. The Bucks are on pace for their second best season in 20 years.

2) Let me put that last sentence in another context: Andrew Bogut is about to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the franchise’s best season in a decade, and second best season in twenty years. That isn’t a biased Aussie-centric statement either. Bogut is the Bucks leading scorer (discounting John Salmons who has only played 9 games), leading rebounder (by a mile), leading shot-blocker (by a mile) and leading FG% shooter. Sure, the Bucks are a well-rounded team without one identifiable superstar, but is there any question they aren’t Bogut’s team right now? There’s still 20-odd games left this season, but if the Bucks finish with 45 wins (likely) and Bogut’s numbers round out to 16-10-2.5-2apg on 52% shooting (likely, and he is the only player in the league capable of finishing with that line) then are his efforts any less remarkable than what Wade is doing in Miami, or what Bosh is doing in Toronto, or what Joe is doing in Atlanta? I say no. I say that Bogut is bordering MVP-candidate territory if that plays out.

Remember, this team is without Michael Redd. Their most dynamic scorer is John Salmons who has been shopped around so much over the last two years he has no idea where he is. Their second best player is a rookie who shoots 37%. They’re giving 20 minutes per game to Jerry Stackhouse who is 46 years old, and what’s more, disturbingly, he’s actually been amongst their leading scorers in several games. Their best interior defender (after Bogut) is Kurt Thomas who moves about as quick as a tectonic plate. Their best perimeter defender is… oh wait they don’t have one.  One of their starters has never been a starter before this season (Delfino) while the other (Mbah a Moute) is an undersized power forward who pulls down less rebounds per game than his soft European back-up (Ilyasova). And Luke Ridnour is their 5th leading scorer. Think about that.

The glass half-full view is that they are a team of hard-working role players greater than the sum of their parts (a view I’m happy to subscribe to being a long-time Pistons fan). The glass half-empty view is that they are an absolute rabble. One who’s collective functioning cannot be credited to their inconsistent rookie point guard (the position most usually responsible for controlling rabble teams). Nor can it be credited to a gun scorer who bails his team out through voluminous scoring (they don’t have one). Part of the credit must go to Coach Skiles who’s uncompromising style and discipline seems to be resonating with this motley crew. But the biggest chunk of the credit should go to Bogut, who after copping flack for so many years by failing to meet everyone’s #1 draft pick expectations, is slowly starting to exceed them. That entails all the on-court stuff – the points, rebounds, blocks and assists – but also extends to the leadership and veteran presence he is starting to exude.

Not that you will hear it from Bogut himself, who remains as blunt and as self-deprecating as ever. After absolutely dominating the Hornets a couple of weeks back, he was not impressed: “We’ve got to stay grounded… We’re at .500, that’s nothing to be proud about. We’ve laid eggs before in similar situations”. And this following today’s win over Cleveland: “They’ll be people saying it was a great game and they’ll be other people saying well, LeBron didn’t play, if he would have played, they would have won. It’s a lose-lose situation for us.” When was the last time you heard a player labeling a win as a “lose-lose situation”?

It is those startling self-assessments that make Bogut a unique character in this league. Earlier in his career he put some players and fans offside thanks to his brash commentary, and he isn’t exactly trying to win them back by conforming to the superstar mold. He won’t always tell you what you want to hear. He won’t talk himself up when he has every right to. He won’t thump his chest after defeating a more decorated opponent.  He remains the same grounded, hard-working, unpretentious player he always was. The ordinary Aussie bloke. He’s just getting more attention now because he’s doing out-of-the-ordinary things.

So you will know when Andrew Bogut becomes a true star in this league; not from All-Star votes, sneaker endorsements, highlight-reel plays or the shaping of a TV-friendly superstar ego.  But from the respect and admiration expressed by his teammates, coaches and peers. God knows, you won’t hear it from Bogut himself.

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