By Brady Klopfer
What if I told you that a player averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game last year, a line that had prior been achieved a grand total of zero times in NBA history? What if I told you that same player is only in second gear, curling around the hairpin turn, about to slam on the accelerator, upshift and show us what’s really under the hood?
No, this isn’t an ESPN 30 For 30. It’s simply the tale of one of the league’s most mesmerizing forces of nature, Giannis Antetokounmpo; who has only cracked the surface of what projects to be a historically great career.
Giannis burst onto the scene last year with his first All-Star selection, a runaway victory for Most Improved Player and a sprinkling of MVP shares. Fans of fifth grade math homework, however, should not have been surprised. Antetokounmpo’s breakout year was nothing more than the continuation of a clear trend:
Antetokounmpo made monster gains following his first two seasons; it should come as no surprise he did so in his third, as well. And it only follows we can expect another leap forward this coming season. Of course, each year those improvements become more and more difficult to achieve, as the holes in a player’s game become smaller and smaller. Giannis will eventually stagnate, as all players do. But it sure as hell won’t be anytime soon.
For all of Antetokounmpo’s strengths, there are notable gaps in his game. More importantly, Giannis has the skillset already to patch nearly all of those gaps.
With a 7’3” wingspan and a stride that can cover a court in approximately two steps, Giannis is a living depiction of Newton’s First Law of Motion. When Antetokounmpo has a head of steam, it is as difficult to guard him as it is to spell his name without using Google.
In transition, Giannis averages 1.28 points per possession, a mark that fits into the 81.9 percentile. Frighteningly, he’s even more effective in the half court, where his 1.50 points per possession while cutting are in the 91 percentile. Let the man get moving and it’s game over.
When he’s not moving, his offensive holes are on display. Four years into his career, Antetokounmpo still hasn’t developed much of a three-point shot: he hit the target on only 27.2 percent of his attempts last year. Part of this is basic young player’s struggles; Giannis is only 22 and shooting is often a late-developing trait. His steady development from the charity stripe, where he shot 77 percent last year, suggests he’s already finding the touch on his jumper.
That said, Antetokounmpo’s shot is due to hit the shop for its four-year tune-up, to get the mechanics tweaked a bit. His length and low shooting pocket result in a slow release time, something the two steps he takes to set only accentuates (Giannis would be wise to buy what Coach Nick is selling here, and hop into his jumper). Still, the free throw improvements, young age and gentle touch all suggest he should soon become an adequate-at-worst threat from downtown.
As the shooting improves, so too will the other half-court offensive weapons. It’s difficult to imagine him improving as a cutter, yet that’s exactly what would happen. Defenses currently sag off of him with the intent of only protecting the rim, yet he still punishes them repeatedly. Force the defense to play more honestly, and Antetokounmpo’s rapid first step with or without the ball becomes that much more dangerous.
The addition of a deep threat to his arsenal would allow Antetokounmpo to shine in the pick and roll, where, on paper, he’s the idyllic ball handler. His athleticism makes him a nightmare matchup for any big that switches, while his length and finishing ability allow him to capitalize on any hole in coverage. Add in his notably above-average passing ability and he should be a force that cannot be defended.
Instead, Antetokounmpo has been decidedly ordinary in such circumstances, primarily because his lack of a jumper allows the defense to dictate where the pick and roll goes. Once his jumper becomes a threat, handling the pick and roll will become a glorious game of Choose Your Own Adventure. The beauty of the most basic play in basketball is it’s virtually impossible to defend the shot, drive and roll, all at once. With an elite athlete who can drive, shoot and pass, the only good defense is a pair of crossed fingers and a few Hail Mary’s.
The other end of the pick and roll also stands out, though not so much by the fault of Antetokounmpo. Giannis is one of the league’s elite roll men, scoring 1.43 points per possession as the big in the pick and roll, good for the 96.8 percentile. While this number might improve even further with the threat of a pick and pop, that’s hardly something to worry about. Instead, the Milwaukee Bucks need to focus simply on running the play more frequently. Jason Kidd, who insists on playing far too traditionally, ran pick and rolls with Antetokounmpo as the roll man just 0.8 times a game last year, an indefensible number considering Giannis’ skillset.
Until Kidd adapts to the new game, there will always be untapped potential for Antetokounmpo. Giannis spent the bulk of the season playing the 3, when he should be getting significant run at the 4 and 5 (while still handling the ball regularly).
Antetokounmpo has all the physical attributes necessary to excel in the frontcourt in the modern NBA (just as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green do), but he hasn’t been forced to develop those skills. Giannis still grades out as a middling player in the post, both offensively and defensively. Given his size and athleticism, there’s no reason he shouldn’t beast on opponents on the block. That side of his game is a lock to improve, but the quicker Kidd realizes that the year is 2017, not 1997, the faster that development will take place. If and when that happens, Giannis taking on some frontcourt responsibilities will open up the game for Jabari Parker to excel, as well, while hiding Parker’s questionable post defense.
Antetekounmpo is only 22, and his abilities on the court are precocious. We’ve seen this story with James, with Durant, with Kawhi Leonard. Athletic freaks with diverse and dynamic skillsets, who put up gaudy numbers in their fourth seasons.
If those players are any indication, then watch out, world: here comes Giannis Antetokounmpo.