Giannis Antetokounmpo is aptly named “The Greek Freak” for simply being, well, really freaky. Players who keep growing after entering the NBA and reach 6’11”, all while maintaining the same rare agility and speed, and transition to point guard in the process just aren’t supposed to happen.
Yet, Giannis has made that journey as thrilling and impressive as possible. And he keeps getting better all the time.
His basic career averages show the kind of consistent, year by year development any team would dream of seeing from their franchise player in the making. His numbers have jumped up across the board each season, and already in his first 14 games of 2016-17 he’s setting new career-highs in points (22.3), rebounds (8.3), assists (6.1), steals (1.9), blocks (2.1), field goal percentage (50.9), PER (25.6) and true shooting percentage (57.4).
So, in other words, everything. Giannis is getting better at everything.
He recently had a historic performance to showcase his diverse nature, too. In the Bucks’ 93-89 win over the Orlando Magic on November 21, Giannis became just the fourth player in NBA history to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, five steals and three blocks in a game. The others were Andrei Kirilenko, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the great man himself, Michael Jordan.
That’s not bad company for 21-year-old (!) Giannis.
While his lacking jump shot is still the obvious weakness in an otherwise weirdly freakish, well-rounded arsenal of skill and physical ability, his meteoric development and changed role to serve as the Milwaukee Bucks’ 6’11” floor general is going to see improved production in new areas. A drastic PER increase from 18.8 last season to 25.6 particularly jumps off the page, even for the relatively small sample size we have so far.
Giannis has to be the most unique player in the NBA right now. He adopted the point guard role for Jason Kidd’s Bucks as last season progressed, gradually honing his ability to drive and kick to teammates, run effective sets unlike other players his size, and improve the way he reads the floor. Turnovers have increased to 3.6 per game this season (up from 2.6), but that’s fairly understandable, seeing as it coincides with his increased ball handling responsibility and career-high usage percentage of 28.6.
He does it all, unlike any other, in a 6’11” frame with a 7’3″ wingspan and strides that could seemingly stretch back to Greece. While we’ve seen the playmaking flare and driving ability to glide straight past players into the paint, it’s on defense where Giannis’ absurd length and agility have hurled him into a level of versatility we’ve never seen on this level.
We’ve always known he has the ability to guard practically every position and use his telescopic arms to expand into passing lanes or stride across the lane with his long steps and operate as a dangerous help defender. He has the perfect physical tools to do so, swarming players like an octopus on the ball and causing disruption off it.
But everything has been heightened this season, with Giannis’ increases from 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game last season to 1.9 and 2.1, respectively, offering a brief indication of his ability.
We’ve seen Giannis’ defensive talent and size put to use at the freakiest of levels, with spells of him returning down the floor to defend at center after he’s finished running the point. In a couple of fourth quarters and spells of play when Kidd wants to employ his creativity, his operating at center in small-ball lineups has been a genuine possibility.
As Kidd said to Yahoo!, Giannis playing at center sometimes has given them a spark:
“We’re trying to give those guys (Mason Plumlee and John Henson) some confidence,” Kidd said. “There’s going to be limited time to play three centers in today’s game. Small ball is big and sometimes the schedule doesn’t permit you to play three or four centers. Playing Giannis at center (in Milwaukee’s small lineup) has given us a spark.”
In a 100-107 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on November 16, in which the Bucks made a resilient comeback after being down by 24 points, some small-ball play with Giannis at the center was key.
The following possession shows Mike Muscala rolling down the lane, receiving a deep pass, and turning instantly for a layup attempt. Against other, slower forwards moving to center, Muscala may have had an easier time finishing. Against Antetokounmpo, he wouldn’t have such luxury. The Bucks’ star shifted across the lane, waited for the right moment to unleash his arms, and timed his block perfectly.
Then, shortly after, Antetokounmpo made Muscala feel useless yet again. After getting a helpful switch from Paul Millsap to Muscala on a high pick-and-roll from Jabari Parker, Giannis dribbled left before cutting right with a nifty behind-the-back dribble. As he tore down the lane after finding a better angle, Giannis’ speed and long strides left Muscala in no better position than as the victim on a dunk poster.
Whether Giannis can find such mismatches against slower bigs in half-court settings or he can scramble opposing teams when he shifts from center on defense and attacks like a monstrous point guard in transition, he can be serious handful of lengthy, scoring athleticism.
Antetokounmpo isn’t manning the five here, but this sequence is another perfect example of what he can do. After quickly running around a screen from Bismack Biyombo, Giannis maintains position as a threat to block a potential Elfrid Payton layup at any moment from behind, and finishes the play by reacting right on time to block Serge Ibaka’s shot head on.
Either coming over as a help defender or going straight up under the basket as he does in the play above, Giannis can be used as a rim protector. And he’s doing so better than ever.
In the Bucks’ latest game against the Magic–a 104-96 win on Sunday–Antetokounmpo blocked the hyper-athletic Aaron Gordon at the rim not once, but twice. It’s sequences like this that truly make you marvel at the alien-like capabilities of what Antetokounmpo can do. The way he hangs in the air, keeps both arms high and shifts his left hand over to thwart Gordon’s layup attempt is scarily good.
The way he bounds around the court with such an unmatched level of length and pace causes opponents nightmares, and the way he’s been standing strong, enforcing his will and recording an impressive career-high block percentage of 5.1 has helped the Bucks find some small-ball success.
When considering that and the way he can alter attempts in mid-air, players are shooting a measly 42 percent against Giannis at the rim this season. That’s similar to the mark of an elite shot blocker such as Rudy Gobert (40) or Hassan Whiteside (40.4).
Giannis’ overall two-way impact is tremendous. With the Bucks scoring eight more points per 100 possessions and allowing six less on defense with Antetokounmpo on the floor, their net rating soars from -10.9 without him to +3.1 with him.
His being able to do so much is what makes him so great. He can be the ultimate switchy center in short spells, capable of going out to cover anyone at the perimeter as he does most of the time, and having the ability to seriously bother opponents at the rim, too. On top of that diverse impact, he can take everything one step further by snatching the ball after a defensive stop and running a fastbreak by himself, either blowing past teams for one of his long, signature euro steps or dropping a dime to a teammate. As the player who ranks fourth in the NBA in fastbreak points per game at 5.2, it’s clear that he’s hard to contain in the open court.
From a new level of small-ball use to the continually improving numbers to the success and entertainment of point-Giannis, Antetokounmpo is more versatile than ever. He’s a truly rare specimen in the NBA’s history, and we can’t help but enjoy it as the Bucks embrace their freakishly talented future.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.