By Bryan Toporek
Compared to the 2016 edition of our BBALLBREAKDOWN Top 50, no player rose more than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If that comes as a surprise, you haven’t been paying attention over the past 12 months.
After Bucks head coach Jason Kidd installed Antetokounmpo as his de facto point guard last season, the Greek Freak responded with a career-best year. Not only did he set new personal highs across the board—22.9 points on 52.1 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals in 35.6 minutes—but he became the first player in league history to finish among the top 20 league-wide in all five categories, per NBA.com. He was also just the third player ever to average 20 points, eight boards, five assists and 1.5 blocks, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Garnett.
And oh, by the way: Antetokounmpo doesn’t turn 23 until December.
Is it any wonder, then, that reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant recently suggested the Greek Freak could one day challenge Michael Jordan for the greatest of all time label?
“I like long, athletic guys,” Durant said (via Alec Nathan of Bleacher Report). “That’s just who I am. The Greek Freak I think is a force, and I’ve never seen anything like him. And his ceiling is probably—he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That’s pretty scary to think about. But he’s by far my favorite player to watch.”
When Antetokounmpo entered the league in 2013, he was a 6’9″, 196-pound ball of long, sinewy limbs and raw, unharnessed talent. In February of that year, DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony wrote, “[Antetokounmpo’s] talent is readily seen on first glance as soon as he steps foot on the court, but there’s obviously still a long ways to go for him to translate that into production at the highest levels of basketball.”
Four years, 40-plus pounds and a league-wide small-ball revolution later, the Greek Freak is officially at that point.
The physical attributes to which Durant referred are what one day could make Antetokounmpo a legitimate challenger to Jordan’s GOAT title. No player in the league touts his combination of size (6’11”), length (a reported 7’3″ wingspan) and speed. It makes him damn near unguardable in transition, where he can cross from half court to the rim in a handful of strides. The sight of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook charging with a full head of steam toward the basket used to be the most terrifying sight in the NBA, but Antetokounmpo may have already wrested that throne from them.
Antetokounmpo averaged 1.28 points per possession on transition plays last year, which put him in the top fifth of the league. And he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.
Kidd’s decision to shift Antetokounmpo into a point forward role following the 2016 All-Star break teased at what was to come the following season. Over his final 28 games that year, the Greek Freak erupted for 18.8 points on 50.9 percent shooting, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals in 36.5 minutes, turning into a do-it-all two-way dynamo poised to single-handedly lift the Bucks into playoff contention. The Bucks struggled down the stretch that season, going 11-17 over those final two months, but that experimentation with Point Antetokounmpo set the stage for his breakout in 2016-17.
“At first, it was kind of intimidating,” Antetokounmpo told Time.com’s Sean Gregory in reference to becoming Milwaukee’s full-time point guard. “Because it wasn’t a position I was really comfortable at. My rookie year, my sophomore year, I was more on the wings, more in the corners. I was just waiting for my time, waiting for the ball. But being the point guard, you’ve got to have the ball. You’ve got to put your team into the right spot, you’ve got to know the plays that are going on. Sometimes when you’re in the corners and you’re on the wings, you can almost avoid a mistake because you don’t have the ball.”
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Antetokounmpo isn’t a nightly 20-10 threat like Westbrook or John Wall, but he has topped the 10-assist threshold 14 times since the calendar flipped to 2016. He isn’t a flashy, dazzling passer like Ricky Rubio or Milos Teodosic, but the attention he commands defensively creates wide-open looks for his teammates. Rather than jack a contested shot against a double-team, his willingness to dish for an assist helps the Bucks feast upon defensive breakdowns, as they did during a 116-97 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second game of the 2017-18 season.
After the Bucks fell to James and the Cavs, Antetokounmpo brushed off comparisons between him and the four-time MVP.
“I’m not on that level,” Antetokounmpo told reporters. “LeBron James is one of the best players in the league, and one of the best players to ever play the game. It’s great going against him, but I don’t think about that.”
Antetokounmpo isn’t far off from that territory, though. In the Bucks’ first game of the 2017-18 regular season, he became the youngest player to notch at least 35 points and 10 rebounds in a season opener since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He also should have been arrested for attempting to murder Aron Baynes.
The one thing holding Antetokounmpo back from complete global domination is his lack of a consistent three-point stroke. Through the first four years of his career, he shot 125-of-451 (27.7 percent) from deep, although he did set new personal highs in makes (49) and attempts (180) in 2016-17. Until the Greek Freak develops longer shooting range, opponents will continue to sink below screens and dare him to beat them from downtown.
That lack of three-point proficiency hasn’t stopped him from otherwise dominating, though. Through the first four games of the 2017-18 campaign, Antetokounmpo tallied an unfathomable 36.8 points on 65.9 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks, cementing himself as an early MVP front-runner.
Unlike Westbrook and James Harden, the top two MVP finishers from this past season, Antetokounmpo can be equally impactful on defense as he is on offense. Last season, opponents shot 5.1 percentage points below their average when Antetokounmpo guarded them, and the Bucks were nearly two points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor versus on the bench. He’s one of the few stars who can defend point guards through centers alike, joining Durant, James, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard.
“He can be Magic Johnson and KG [Kevin Garnett],” Kidd told The Vertical’s Chris Mannix. “When he puts his mind to it, he can do everything defensively.”
Last season, Antetokounmpo was tied with Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas for 28th league-wide in contested shots per game (10.0), and he ranked 30th in deflections per game (2.7). That 7’3″ wingspan of his enables him to flash into passing lanes out of nowhere, swiping the ball away from unsuspecting victims at a moment’s notice.
“Giannis is like a flagpole with his hands up,” Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. “He can be outside of the 3-foot window of a shooter and still challenge a shot.”
Even if Antetokounmpo never develops a consistent jump shot—bet against him at your own peril—he’s already emerging as one of the NBA’s cornerstones for the next decade-plus. Speaking with ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin prior to Friday’s loss against the Cavaliers, the Greek Freak described where he felt he improved the most since coming into the league in 2013.
“I think my mentality. The way I approach the game. The way I approach just a simple practice. That’s my mentality.
“I take this more serious. I’m not taking this for granted no more. I think my rookie I was just having fun. I was 18 and I was living the American dream. Now, I think it’s like, it’s time to like work hard and achieve goals and do whatever it takes for your team to win. So I think my mentality has changed since my rookie year.”
Antetokounmpo already won Most Improved Player in 2016-17, and Kobe Bryant challenged him to go after MVP this year. Considering the amount of progress the Greek Freak has made in his four-and-change seasons in the NBA, projecting a ceiling for him is a fool’s errand.
There’s only one certainty when it comes to Antetokounmpo: He’ll be ranked higher on this list next year.