LeBron James is the NBA’s best player, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is someone who can take that crown.
At just 22-years-old, the Milwaukee Bucks star has all the tools to be one of the NBA’s top talents. This idea dawned on me when I was comparing Kawhi Leonard and LeBron since Pop said that his superstar is the league’s best player. Giannis already fits the bill physically and athletically, and those are huge when debating the NBA’s best players. Historically, guys who are physical freaks dominate. It gives them an edge that can’t be developed.
LeBron’s a freak because of his size and athleticism. Michael Jordan was also an incredible athlete. Before them, there was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose size and length made him impossible to guard. As we go back in time even further, we reach Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell territory, and those two were way ahead of their time. All of these guys (and more who went unnamed) would enforce their will no matter when they played, and Antetokounmpo is on the verge of that. The once skinny and lanky forward is no more. Giannis stands at 6-11 with a 7-3 wingspan and freakishly huge hands. He’s an NBA 2K player come to life. There have been countless pieces on his damn-near fictional physical attributes, but they’re what make him such a special player.
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His jump from last year was incredible. In one campaign, Giannis went from starter to star, and he’s now one year away from the superstar label. He’s a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate, and it’s easy to see why:
- 2015-16: 35.3 minutes, 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.2 steals
- 2016-17: 35.6 minutes, 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.6 steals
(Incredibly fun fact: according to Basketball Reference, there have been two players to average at least eight rebounds, five assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks for a season. One of them is Giannis. The other? Sam Lacey, a one-time All-Star who spent 13 seasons with the Royals franchise and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unlike Giannis, Lacey averaged just 11.5 points a night.)
Antetokounmpo improved in every facet of his game while becoming more efficient and having to bear a larger workload. Milwaukee upped his usage rate to 28.2 percent this year, a 5.9-point increase from 22.3 last season. He became the first player in history to finish in the top 20 for points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, and his PER exploded to 26.1. Because of his tremendous length, Antetokounmpo is a force inside. Overall, he made 52.2 percent of his shots, and that’s without a jumper — literally, he has no jump shot. Inside of three feet, Giannis converted on 70.9 percent of his attempts, and he’s able to go from the three-point line to the basket in just one dribble. It’s remarkable.
He led the Bucks to a 42-40 record, and their season ended in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. Even then, Giannis was playing out of his mind. If Jabari Parker were healthy, Milwaukee could’ve made some serious noise. For the series, Giannis averaged 24.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. Here’s a list of players who did that at 22 or younger:
He played defense, too. Antetokounmpo was called upon to be the DeMar DeRozan stopper, and he played him as well as anybody. He terrorized Toronto for six games, averaging 2.2 steals, 1.7 blocks and limiting opponents to 51.6 percent shooting inside of six feet, a minus-10.1 percent difference from their average, according to NBA.com. In Game 6, Giannis played his best game of the series but, unfortunately, it came at the Bucks expense. He finished with 34 points, nine rebounds and three assists, but his inexperience shined brighter than ever.
If there are any gripes with Antetokounmpo’s game, it’s rooted in two things — foul trouble and poor decision-making. During the regular season, Giannis averaged 3.1 fouls a night and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.86:1. Neither of that worries me. Giannis is only 22. Those are going to get better over time, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll work relentlessly to cut down on his fouls and his turnovers.
“But he’s already been in the league for four years, why hasn’t he improved?”
Great question. Giannis has. Since his second year, the fouls per game haven’t deviated more than 0.1. Also, Giannis’ assist percentage has improved each year while his turnover rate has decreased. If we continue to go by turnover percentage, Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul are committing almost the same amount: 13.3 for Giannis, 14.0 for Paul. (Note: turnover percentage is on a per 100 possessions basis.)
What intrigued me more than anything was his inability to connect on free throws in the playoffs. Giannis went to the charity stripe for 46 attempts and finished the series with 25 makes. That works out to 54.3 percent, and he bombed from the free throw line in game six — 7-of-13. For the regular season, Antetokounmpo was more reliable than ever and made 77 percent of his free throws. It’s possible that poor shooting was a fluke. But, if it wasn’t, it’ll be a crippling crutch if he continues to struggle.
His meager percentage didn’t hamper his aggressive, though. For a young player, it’s great to see his confidence not be affected.
Another interesting anecdote was his 40 percent clip from three. Only 10 of his shots were from behind the arc, but it’s encouraging to see him extend his range, even if the volume is remarkably small. He didn’t settle for the wide-open shots that the Raptors were giving him, and Giannis is very self-aware and knows his game. He did, however, have a lapse when Milwaukee was down by three in the waning seconds of the series clincher, and he attacked the rim for two instead of taking the outside shot. Further, he was being defended by a shorter player. If it were the regular season, he might’ve done the same thing. That decision is not an indictment on him, but it’ll be interesting to see how a reluctance to shoot impacts him over the next couple of seasons.
The radical improvement that Giannis showed us this year is the tip of the iceberg. He’s not in his prime yet, physically, athletically or mentally, and means he’s going to be very scary by his mid-to-late-20s. With about 10 years separating him and LeBron, Antetokounmpo should be having the best years of his career when James is closing in on retirement. He’ll be battling the likes of Kawhi and Anthony Davis for the best player crown, and I can’t think of many things that excite me more.
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