This article was one of my newsletters on my old Patreon. It was originally published to my subscribers on December 26, 2016.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has always had “tremendous upside potential,” to borrow a phrase from the legendary Hubie Brown. As an incredibly long wing player with solid ball handling skills and the ability to make plays for others, Antetokounmpo made a very intriguing draft prospect four years ago. Here’s what Jonathon Givony of DraftExpress had to say in February of 2013 about the at-the-time mostly unknown prospect now known as the Greek Freak:
Adetokunbo stands out first and foremost thanks to the tremendous physical profile he brings to the table, reminding somewhat of a Nicolas Batum or Thabo Sefolosha on first glance. He has great size at 6–9, 196 pounds, to go along with a developed upper body and an overall terrific frame that should fill out considerably in time. His wingspan has reportedly been measured at 7–3, but perhaps most interesting is the size of his hands, as he’s able to palm the ball like a grapefruit which helps him out considerably as a passer, ball-handler and finisher.
It’s popular to say that a prospect — particularly an obscure one — ‘plays every position on the floor,’ but in the game we watched in Greece, that was indeed the case. The competition level, as you can see in the video scouting report above, is indeed nothing to write home about, but it’s difficult not to be taken aback by the incredibly versatile skill-set Adetokunbo brings to the table at 6–9.
There were, of course, questions. They mostly centered on the level of competition he was facing as a young player in the Greek minor leagues. In addition, for most draftniks that aren’t on the payroll of a professional basketball team or work for DraftExpress, there was very little footage of him to form an opinion. He was also rail thin and hadn’t quite grown to his current 6’11” (he was just 6’9″). The talent was there, but it was fair to wonder if the tools and skills he displayed would translate against the very best players in the world.
About a third of the way through his fourth season in the league, that question has been answered emphatically in the affirmative. Antetokounmpo, now known to many as simply Giannis, has undeniably made “the leap.” He’s sporting top 5 marks in the league in all three of the major all-in-one boxscore statistics (Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares per 48 minutes, and Box Plus-Minus), and he’s 6th in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. He’s also just 22 years old. That last number might be the most important, because what you might not know is that Antetokounmpo is currently on pace to have (arguably) the very best season by any player age 22 or under in the history of the league.
Yes, better than the young versions of Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, or Michael Jordan.
(Data via basketball-reference)
The one thing that really stands out from this list of the best seasons for players age 22 and under is that basically all of these players were great as soon as they entered the league. That was decidedly not the case for Antetokounmpo. As a 19 year old rookie, Antetokounmpo was roughly a replacement level player, sporting a BPM of -1.8 per 100 possessions (replacement level is -2.0) and a PER of 10.8 (replacement level is 11.0).
Looking at his basic box-score numbers, per 36 minutes, the same picture emerges. Giannis averaged 10.0 points on below average scoring efficiency, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.2 blocks. To go from that to where Antetokounmpo is now is nothing short of astounding. It may be the single biggest improvement by a player in a four year span, ever. Giannis has been getting incrementally better each year, but this year something different has happened. What are his per 36 numbers this year? 24.2 points on an absurdly high efficiency (60.8% true shooting), 9.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.1 steals, and 2.0 blocks. He has become an absolute do-it-all monster. This has largely been the result of Antetokounmpo becoming empowered to truly run the offense as the point-forward he was always destined to be.
Antetokounmpo’s offense has come a long way, largely owing to his ability to use his absurdly long strides to get wherever he wants on the floor with little to no resistance. Watching him run the floor in transition and hit all manner of players with the Gyro Step, his extra exaggerated version of the Euro step, is a joy to watch.
It’s not just in transition where Giannis has been able to get to the basket and finish with touch. Watch how easily he’s able to get to the rim here against the Cavaliers.
Poor Kyrie Irving doesn’t stand a chance. Giannis can just step around him and then reach around any other help defenders to get the ball up off the glass for the easy bucket.
As a result of his ability to go around, through, and over the top of his opponents, Antetokounmpo’s shot chart for this season looks like this:
Due to his ability to get shots around the basket and his success rate at converting them, Antetokounmpo has seen the floor open up for him as defenses scramble to try to find a way to stop him. Check out the attention he draws here on this pick and roll in semi-transition with nominal point guard Matthew Dellavedova against the Washington Wizards.
Dellavedova gets solid contact on Otto Porter and Antetokounmpo is able to turn the corner on John Wall.
All five Wizards are looking at Giannis as he barrels down on Marcin Gortat. This leaves them wide open to Jabari Parker’s dive to the basket.
Antetokounmpo is then able to spoon-feed Parker the easy dunk as all the Wizards are too late to realize that Parker has flashed to the hoop.
A similar thing happened against the Chicago Bulls, only the Bulls were in a set defense. Antetokounmpo had the ball in the mid-post against the diminutive Isaiah Canaan and all five Bulls set their eyes on our new Greek overlord. Mirza Teletovic, like Jabari Parker in the play above, saw his opportunity, cut to the basket, and was rewarded by Giannis with an easy dunk.
All of this offensive wizardry is largely icing on the cake. Where Antetokounmpo really shines is on the defensive end. His 7’3″ wingspan and sharp defensive instincts make him the human embodiment of the Bucks’ front office’s personnel philosophy of tossing out as many long-armed athletes as possible and forcing opposing players to see a mass of limbs everywhere they turn no matter what they try to do. He’s posting the second best Defensive Box Plus Minus by a player his age or younger ever this season, behind only 2015 Rudy Gobert. He’s in passing lanes, he’s bullying smaller players much like Kawhi Leonard and just ripping the ball from them with his massive mitts, and he’s protecting the rim for good measure.
This play from the Bucks’ recent loss to the Cavaliers is illustrative. Giannis is able to plant himself in the paint as he waits for LeBron to bumrush the rim off a pick and roll, while still being able to recover and hit LeBron with a pick-six going the other way when James tries to hit Giannis’s man (seemingly) open in the corner.
That just shouldn’t be possible. But with Giannis, it is. He looks like a 7 foot Scottie Pippen out there. Here are a few more just to give a taste of the world that Giannis is making possible.
LeBron thinks he has the step on Antetokounmpo only to get swatted at the last moment.
Kyrie Irving takes what would be a tough, but make-able shot for him going towards the basket while being guarded by Dellavedova, only for it to be completely erased by Giannis as he helps from the weakside.
What should be really, truly scary for the rest of the league is that Antetokounmpo isn’t even an average jump shooter at this point, but there are signs that he’s getting better. His free throw percentage, typically a pretty good measure of how good someone’s shooting form is, is up around 80% (79.2%) and he’s converting shots between 16 feet and inside the three point arc (the dreaded “long twos”) at 38.5%. If he can get his 3 point shot to merely mediocre from its current relatively unusable state (28.6% on 2.5 attempts a game), he becomes impossible to guard. As it is, he is incredibly hard to contain, but with a consistent jumper, there’s no way to even think about stopping him. Oh, by the way, Dirk Nowitzki’s famed shot doctor, Holger Geschwindner offered to tutor Giannis this coming summer.
Be afraid, rest of the NBA, be very afraid. The era of Giannis has arrived.