Andrew Bogut on life in Milwaukee and the injury that changed everything

In 2003, a lanky kid from Melbourne - with a bleached curtain haircut resembling Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys - led Australia to victory at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships.

His name was Andrew Bogut, who already stood 6'9 tall at age 18. Bogut picked up tournament MVP honours with averages of 26.3 points and 17.0 rebounds per game, en route to the gold medal.

Edit: This is the last gold medal that any Australian men's team has collected at a World Championships event.

Bogut's talent alerted the University of Utah, who promptly offered him a scholarship. Throughout his two-year collegiate career, the Victorian would grow to a height of 7 feet and elevate his game to a new level. In 2005, Bogut was named the best player in NCAA Division I basketball, with averages of 20.4 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. He remains the only Australian to win this honour. Following a stellar NCAA career, Bogut was a touted NBA prospect and entered the draft, where Milwaukee selected him with the first overall pick.

Bogut recently caught up with Kane Pitman on the Locked on Bucks podcast to talk all things Milwaukee. The interview provides an insight into the pressures Bogut faced as the number one overall pick, Scott Skiles' coaching and that horrific arm injury among other topics.

Rookie year

Bogut spoke of the isolation and pressures he faced after the Bucks drafted him with the first overall pick. Initially a big fish in a small pond at the University of Utah, he now had to start from the bottom in Milwaukee.

“Getting drafted to Milwaukee and becoming a professional, basically, it’s your job now. I felt a lot more isolated and kind of by myself,” Bogut said.

The big man averaged 9.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per contest in his debut season, leading to a First Team All-Rookie selection. These are typically impressive numbers for most rookies, but par course for a #1 pick.

“I wouldn’t say I had an outstanding rookie year or bad rookie year – I think I was quite average," He said. "I had some good games and showed potential. Not knowing how to handle it was the hardest thing. I think maybe having a closer knit group at the time would have helped me a lot more. I didn’t know how to handle it and hadn’t spoken to anyone that had been through it.”

Although Bogut averaged a healthy 28.6 minutes per game, he didn't possess the infinitely long leash often given to high lottery picks on struggling teams.

"It wasn’t a situation like most #1 picks, playing 35-40 minutes and winning 15 games, where they’re going to blood you as much as possible.

Rather, the Bucks were competitive in Bogut's rookie season, finishing with a 40-42 record and sneaking into the playoffs with the eighth seed.

Coaching personnel changes

Bogut made strides in his second NBA season, with per-game averages of 12.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to lift a struggling Bucks team, and coach Terry Stotts paid the price. With Milwaukee sitting at 23-41 and out of playoff contention, Bogut endured his first change in coaching personnel. The Victorian also experienced his first taste of the NBA as a business making strategic decisions, when he was shut down following a minor injury.

“I was playing on a mid-foot sprain, playing through it and playing fine," Bogut shared. "The franchise basically tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘hey, we’d rather you not play the rest of the year and get your foot right’. I thought my foot was worse than it is, not realising that essentially it was time to shut up shop and try to get a higher pick in the draft.”

Milwaukee's revolving door of coaches continued when Scott Skiles was hired ahead of Bogut's fourth NBA season. Skiles would coach Bogut for the remainder of his tenure in Milwaukee, at a time when the Australian centre reached his peak. Speaking about his former mentor, the big man credited his commitment towards defence as follows:

“I really learnt a lot from [Skiles]. He was the first coach that held me accountable defensively. I got labelled as a defensive bust coming out of college – in college I couldn’t afford to foul out, because I was a 20/12 guy. I probably could’ve been better defensively but I couldn’t really afford to foul. He really got my defence to an elite level.”

Bogut also lauded Skiles' tactical knowledge, calling him "one of the best X’s and O’s coaches" he's ever had, and paid compliments to the former Milwaukee head coach's understanding of the game.

However, Skiles was known to be a hard taskmaster who demanded discipline and full effort. “The one thing that he struggled with maybe was toning it down a little bit at times. A lot of guys obviously did get frustrated and burnt out from it, and struggled to play for him after an extended period of time.”

In the Scott Skiles era, Milwaukee struggled to make progress, making the playoffs only once. Bogut expressed his frustration towards the organisation's inability to maintain a stable playing roster.

“To be honest, after my third year with him it was a little bit tough, because it was the same old thing. I think the franchise was stuck in this revolving door where it felt like everyone that we got in a trade or signed in free agency was coming in and getting their numbers up to go elsewhere. I was the only guy on a long-term deal and it was very frustrating,” Bogut said. “I can’t fault what Skiles did. I think he turned that place around for what he had and the resources that he had. We just couldn’t form any stability as far as the playing roster [went].”

The career-changing arm injury

In the 2009/10 NBA season, Bogut's fifth campaign as a professional, the Melbourne native finally justified his draft selection. He averaged 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game and claimed an All-NBA Third Team selection. To date, Bogut remains the only Australian to ever make an All-NBA team. At his peak, in 2009/10, the 7-footer was arguably the NBA's second best centre behind Dwight Howard.

Unfortunately, in a cruel twist of fate, Bogut would never hit these heights again. Towards the end of his breakout 2009/10 season, he suffered a sickening arm injury against the Phoenix Suns. After going up for an emphatic breakaway dunk, Bogut received a slight push in the back from Amar'e Stoudemire. He then lost his balance, falling with the weight of his body on an outstretched right arm.

“It was a demoralising injury. I finally lived up to that number 1 pick and averaged 16 and 10 a night. I really felt like it was all coming together. I felt confident out there and consistency [started to develop].”

The injury was in Bogut's shooting hand, resulting in a profound setback on the offensive end. His free throw numbers in the ensuing years are quite telling, as the big man struggled to regain his shooting touch.

“I lost all of my shooting touch and any kind of potency with my right arm. I was told by some doctors that I probably wouldn’t regain that touch for a number of years.”

Bogut remarkably returned from his career-defining injury in just seven months. He was back in time for the opening tip of the 2010/11 season, missing a total of just six games due to injury. Looking at Bogut's career statistics for games played, you wouldn't even know he had such a gruesome injury, given that his rehab coincided with the off-season. However, reflecting on his rehabilitation, Bogut acknowledged that the window might have been quicker than it should have been.

“I probably rushed back from it to be honest," Bogut admitted. "I came back way too soon. It was essentially a 6 to 9 month injury, but I was back in four months.”

The decision resulted in Bogut playing through injury, something that required additional surgery after the season concluded.

“Every fifth shot I’d feel like someone stabbed me in the elbow. I knew something was wrong and in that offseason, I went and got a scope/clean out on it. I had surgery again on it and there was a massive chunk of bone just floating around in my elbow joint. Playing through that for a whole season was [tough].”

When asked whether there was any pressure to get back on the court promptly, and who may have generated that pressure, Bogut attributed it to a variety of factors, starting with his contract.

“Probably 60/40 me," The big man shared. "They gave me a big contract the year before and that was going into the first year of the contract. There was also me being hard-headed, when the doctors said 6-9 months.”

Bogut still averaged a double-double in the 2010/11 season, in spite of his premature return from such a devastating injury. With averages of 12.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, he was still one of the league's premier centres. Bogut focused his energies on defence in the wake of his injury, leading the league in blocked shots with 2.6 per game.

“I started to get really good mentally," Bogut said. "I was like, you know what, my offence has dropped a little bit because my touch is gone. But I’m going to try and dominate the game defensively. I started blocking a lot more shots.”

The three-point shot that never was

The NBA was a very different league in 2005. In Bogut's rookie year, the average NBA team would attempt 16 three-pointers per game. This number has now more than doubled to 33.7 treys per game in 2019. As a 7-foot centre residing firmly in the paint, three-point shooting simply wasn't a priority for Andrew Bogut.

“I wasn’t shooting 3s. Probably should have just been more confident and aggressive with it coming in. It just wasn’t a thing back then. I probably should have taken more onus on being confident with it and keep on shooting it,” Bogut said.

After the arm injury, the three-point shot became a distant thought. Bogut understandably lost the confidence to even step out for a mid-range jumper.

“That arm injury basically changed all of that for the mid-range. Things went south as far as having the flexibility to do it, and also just having the confidence to get the mobility back to shoot it.”

How injury impacted free throws

Andrew Bogut shot 69.2% from the charity stripe in his sophomore year of college, with six attempts per game - hardly a small sample size. He would never reach this mark in the NBA, making just 62.9% of his free throws in his best season (2009/10) and 55.6% for his career overall.

Bogut believed he was making progress prior to his horrific arm injury in 2010.

“I think for me, early on, it wasn’t horrible but it needed some work I felt like I was getting there.”

That horrific arm injury changed everything, and the big man described how it affected his free throw shooting.

“I didn’t work on shooting the whole off-season because I couldn’t," Bogut said. "I couldn’t line my elbow up with the rim for a long long time and get under the ball. Funnily enough, towards the end of my career now, playing over here in Australia, I feel way more confident at the line. I’m confident to go there and shoot 70% this year.”

Bogut was right to be confident in his free throws. He is currently shooting 78% from the foul line, through 14 NBL games in the 2019/20 season.

Favourite moment in Milwaukee

When questioned about his favourite moment as a Milwaukee Buck, Bogut recalls a game winner against San Antonio in 2005. The then-rookie sunk the defending champions with a quick-release shot off a Toni Kukoc inbound pass. Bogut, who is of Croatian descent, idolised Kukoc in his youth.

“Probably my rookie year, I hit a game winner against San Antonio," Bogut recounted. "People that know me know an idol of mine was Toni Kukoc growing up. So if you go back to that play, Toni Kukoc was the inbounder. So he actually inbounded it to me and I hit the game winner from just outside the block. That was an unbelievable feeling playing against Tim Duncan, [Spurs head coach Gregg] Popovich and the Spurs.

On NBA opportunities

When asked if he has ruled out returning to the NBA, Bogut indicated that anything is possible.

“I’ve never put the line through anything. If there is a good opportunity with a good team to hitch my trailer on to get a championship, I would probably definitely listen. There has been a few teams that have been kicking the tyres already about (my) availability.

“Obviously I’ll finish off this season here in Sydney. If there is something that is both appealing to myself, my family and the team we’ll look at it. But it won’t be a case of going back at all costs, just to anybody I can. If there is a genuine opportunity to try and extend the resume and compete for a championship I’d do it. If not, I’ll take a much needed two or three months of training and rest before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”

At 35 years of age, Bogut has reached the twilight of his career. The Tokyo Olympic campaign will likely be his last one, and is hence a priority for the Victorian. Bogut has little to gain by returning to the NBA, unless a strong title contender seeks out his services.