Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Better Than Was Meant To Ever Be Possible
Winners of four games in a row, the Milwaukee Bucks sit a snug fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 10-8 record. They have done so with a dearth of talent at the guard spot.
New signing Matthew Dellavedova has started all 18 games at point guard, and has done usual Dellavedova-ey things. He scores little (almost exclusively on a combination of open threes and really high floaters) and acts as more of a pest than a presence on defense, but he keep the ball moving, finds open men, does not turn it over often, and generally is reliable. He is a good backup point guard thrust into a starting role he is not ideally suited for, whose effort and smarts just about keep his head above water, but who really should not be playing anything like the 28.5 minutes per game that he does. Nevertheless, he is the best option at point guard. Indeed, he is kind of the only option at point guard.
Alongside him at shooting guard – or at small forward, depending on your interpretation of the always somewhat arbitrary nature of wing position definitions – stands Tony Snell, who has started 17 of the 18 games. Snell is a three point shooter who does almost nothing else but shoot threes, yet who is making only 29.9% of them, and whose PER on the season is 8.3. Four years into his NBA career, Snell still has done nothing to separate himself from the fifteen or so D-League wing players who could replace him tomorrow, and who likely would do if he didn't have a guaranteed contract.
Behind them both, while rookie Malcolm Brogdon is off to a good start with his low-risk, high-IQ game, Jason Terry has aged ten years in the last four and is no longer a contributor. Rashad Vaughn is casting up threes but avoiding all contact in his few minutes, Khris Middleton is still out long term with injury, and that’s it. That’s the backcourt.
However, with a frontcourt player with Giannis Antetokounmpo, that can all be overlooked.
Without much in the way of quality around him, save for fellow forward Jabari Parker, the injured Middleton and the ill-fitting Greg Monroe, Antetokounmpo is the one who has brought the team up to this respectable level. Almost never can a player be said to be the single reason why a team starts winning - see also, the curious and somewhat sad case of Anthony Davis, whose ridiculous individual brilliance still can't get the New Orleans Pelicans anywhere better than a 7-13 record. Yet Antetokounmpo might have a claim.
First of all, simply examine Giannis’s raw numbers. All of them. All over the place. Antetokounmpo is averaging 22.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.2 blocks and 2.2 steals per game. To put that into the all-important context, he is scoring better than John Wall (22.3 ppg), rebounding as well as Blake Griffin (also 8.6 rpg), passing better than Mike Conley and Steph Curry (both 5.7 apg), blocking better than Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan (both 1.7 bpg), and stealing better than Kawhi Leonard (2.17 spg compared to 2.15 spg – a negligible difference, but a fun one). Giannis is second in the league in steals, fifth in blocks, 17th in assists, and 19th in both points and rebounds. He is quite literally everything on both ends.
Secondly, look at the more advanced stats. Giannis is fifth in the league in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), a stat designed to measure how much better an NBA player is than a theoretical non-NBA replacement player, ranking behind only Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, James Harden and Kevin Durant. He is also third in the NBA in BPM (Box Plus/Minus), a stat designed to measure how many points a player adds to his team over the span of 100 possessions. Antetokounmpo's 9.7 BPM rating ranks only behind Westbrook's astronomical 14.1 (for context, no one has ever scored more than 13.0 in any season ever) and Paul's 12.0. And his PER of 27.0 ranks him eighth, behind only the aforementioned four, along with Anthony Davis (1st; 32.0), DeMarcus Cousins (6th; 28.2) and Jimmy Butler (7th; 27.8). By any measure, Giannis is producing numbers as good as only the very best.
And thirdly, look at how he is doing it.
Antetokounmpo is as smooth as eggs on the court; the length and fluidity of motion of Durant mixed with the court vision and reading of the game of, say, Kobe Bryant, and the occasional athletic burst of a young Darvin Ham in his prime. Giannis is not the perfect player - his lack of an elite jump shot, and the comparatively minor limitations that such a skill set hole has on one otherwise so able to do what he wants when he wants, being the most obvious one. But he is quickly becoming close to one, and he is still aged a mere 21 years old. The future is scary. So is the present.
Every now and then, a player comes into the league with the supposed ability (or, more often than not, the dream of being able) to play all five positions. Some are transcendent, all-time talents who come close to actually being able to do this (Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett). Some don't reach that top level, but are fine second tier talents (Lamar Odom). Some can barely crack a rotation (Anthony Randolph). And some don't even get that far (Ivan Chiriaev). Either way, whenever an athletic 6'9 or above player with perimeter sensibilities and (most importantly) high assist numbers comes along, the above players and their loose similarities become the scale by which that player is judged.
With this in mind, Giannis should be judged as being on the fringes of the very top tier. A season full of this and he's probably already made it. Antetokounmpo really can play all five positions - he has played a full year at point guard (earning the role by being a better and distributor than all of the other options selected for the role), he is possibly the perfect centre in the small ball era, and yet here he is, mostly at small forward. Or power forward, depending on how you define Parker. Or shooting guard, depending on who Snell guards. Bigger than Pippen ever was and better offensively outside the three point arc than Garnett ever was, Giannis might achieve that hallowed all-positions turf currently inhabited by Magic Johnson ... and pretty much no one else.
Again serving as a point of reference, there is Randolph, a previously oft-cited comparison for Giannis. Randolph had - has - comparable tools to the Greek Freak, both physically and skill-set wise. He cannot handle quite like Antetokounmpo, yet with already a decent dribble for his handle, it is foreseeable that he could be one day. However, Randolph has never had the IQ, the feel, the smoothness, the sheer innate ability that Antetkounmpo does. Antetokounmpo is the pipe dream come true, the combination of size and skill that is so hard to find interspersed with the IQ that is even rarer. It is a laughable comparison now, not because Randolph is a poor player, but because of quite how good Giannis has been able to become.
Parker's role in this astronomic ascent of Giannis's is not insignificant here. The versatile forward is somewhat stuck between positions - offensively he is perhaps more skilled to being a largely face-up, smallish four man with some old school post play mixed in with an off-the-dribble game and spot-up shooting, yet when he plays that spot, his poor defensive play and sub-par rebounding weakens the team as a whole. No matter who his match-up is, however, Parker is always confident he can outscore them. And he is usually right. In being so effective an offensive player from both the inside and the outside, Parker allows for Antetokounmpo to do what he does best offensively - handle the ball up top, drive overplays, closeouts and in semi-transition, run the court, float, free roam, run the show.
That said, Parker's impact on Giannis is not as profound as Giannis's benefits are to Parker. Even if Parker is the better half-court scorer, Giannis is outscoring him, a testament to his fascinating combination of skill, length and willpower. More importantly, it is Antetokounmpo's ability to take whichever forward defensive matchup that is needed that allows for Parker to score on the weaker guy. Those blocks and steals numbers aren't empty stats that describe an athletic yet gambly defensive player; instead, Antetokounmpo is legitimate on that end too, the embodiment of the Bucks's athletic, haranguing defense. Giannis is tough to beat on the perimeter, a threat in any passing or driving lane with his long arms and giants hands, and a serious deterrent around the rim, giving up only 45% shooting against all opponents there. Indeed, it is his abilities defending around the basket that have seen him moved from the full time point guard to being the main basket protector, with Greg Monroe squeezed out along the way.
That's the perimeter defense of Pippen mixed in with the interior defense of Garnett. That's not supposed to be possible.
There can be, and probably is, endless debate on which is the most enviable young pairing in the NBA today. It could well be Antetokounmpo and Parker. Many say it is Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota (with Zach LaVine coming closer every day to making it a trio). One could argue it is the explosive backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Portland, or the scary-looking front court of Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor in Philadelphia. Or Anthony Davis and absolutely anybody.
Whichever your personal preference, however, be sure to drink it in. The NBA is currently replete with amazing young talent, and not young talent with mere potential - young talent with serious impact. The lists of names throughout this article both young and veteran doesn't even include names such as Paul George, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Isaiah Thomas, or the man who still reigns at the top, LeBron James. The talent level is salivating right now, and soon to get better.
Yet in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks may have the absolute pick of the bunch.