2018 NBA All-Stars - Giannis Antetokounmpo plays in a way not previously thought possible

Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers

Rumour has it that when the Milwaukee Bucks fired their head coach Jason Kidd last month, a blindsided Giannis Antetokounmpo tried to run some interference. Apparently upset with the decision, Antetokounmpo spoke with team ownership and management and tried to get them to change their minds to keep one of only two NBA head coaches he had ever known.

No dice, however. The Bucks are building their franchise around Giannis, to be sure, but not to that extent. 

Regardless of the outcome, Giannis’s relationship with Kidd may be symptomatic of the unique talents and attitude of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

To be sure, Kidd must take some of the plaudits for Giannis’s ascent to superstardom. When Kidd arrived with the team back in the summer of 2014, Antetokounmpo had just completed his first season in the league. It was an intriguing first season, to be sure; averaging 6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. Yet while he looked impressive defensively, unique physically and better in his ball-handling and passing skills than untested players would normally be, he did not show much to suggest that he would go on to be the offensive force that he now is.

Kidd was never fully able to incorporate the talents of Antetokounmpo in his near-four years with the team. He never cultivated a half-court offensive system that went much beyond giving the ball to Giannis and hoping something happens. For all of Giannis’s phenomenal talents, his offensive role should be more Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis than Scottie Pippen. And under Kidd, that never happened.

At one point, Giannis under Kidd was deemed to be the point guard. Inasmuch as positions matter at all – an archaic piece of NBA groupthink that is being evolved away from – a player’s position is best defined as being the position he defends. This, perhaps, is a slightly nebulous definition, but it is one that makes more sense when viewed through the prism of unique talents such as Giannis.

There was a time that Giannis was considered something of a point guard. Indeed, the story was that he would play the position full time. “Point guard” in this context was defined to mean “primary ball-handler and main halfcourt playmaker”, with Giannis free-roaming defensively. It worked, in the sense that playing Giannis at any position will work. That is what it means to be great. But it was not optimum, and Giannis was soon back at the forward spot.

Milwaukee Bucks v Washington Wizards

Arguably now, Antetokounmpo should play the centre position with more regularity. The league has become significantly smaller in recent seasons, and the centre spot is perhaps the best positioning for an athletic 6’11 rebounder and rim protector who is better served protecting the paint and stepping up on switches than chasing around perimeter forwards more regularly.

With Jabari Parker returning, the Bucks would be best served getting their best five of Giannis, Parker, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe together on the court as much as possible. And if Giannis is at centre, that is also a logical five-man unit. And it is not as though John Henson or Thon Maker have made it theirs.

Regardless of what position Giannis goes on to play, and the extent to which positions matter, the very fact that we are able to talk about Giannis in these terms speaks to the uniqueness of his talent. Five-position players have been spoken of before, in reference to players like Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Lamar Odom. But it always more in hope than expectation.

Here, in the form of Giannis Antetokounmpo, we actually have one.

Indeed, the NBA is replete with once-in-a-lifetime talents. The game is being played in a way it never has been to a level it never has been. Joel Embiid defends the paint like Ewing and scores all over like Towns. Steph Curry has absolutely redefined what shooting is. He and Westbrook have blown open the meaning of what the point guard is. LeBron is the ageless freight train. Durant changed Etc. Etc. And yet perhaps the most unique of them all is Giannis.

On the season, Antetokounmpo averages 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He shoots 75.8% at the rim, dancing his way there nine times a game through cuts, transition and semi-transition, at which he is unstoppable. He gets to the foul line nine times a game and hits them at 78.7%, and while the three-point shot remains the big weakness, it is improving every season, up to 28.6% shooting this year.

Indeed, all of Antetokounmpo's game improves every year. Save for a slight dip in his assist totals this year (the by-product of both an offence that struggled for half the year and the mid-season inclusion of Eric Bledsoe as an actual point guard) and in his steals and blocks (perhaps due to needing to be such an offensive force instead), all of Giannis's basic number have gone up every season. And they have gone up hugely.

So too have all his efficiency measures. Whereas once he shot a 51.4% true shooting percentage as a rookie finisher, now he shoots 60.8% as a veteran superstar. All the while, the turnover rate has gone down every year, from 19.4% as a rookie to a very impressive 10.9% today. And of course, the flair and the awesomeness behind those athletic plays of his has not diminished in any way.

Giannis is the rare example of the long, lanky, intriguing athletic forward project who has exceeded the already-high level of potential his body type gave him by default. Between his talents and his attitude, Antetokounmpo is a unique talent not just in the NBA today, but throughout its entire history. And if he really does improve with every season, then....well, how much better can he get?

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