For a young NBA player who wants to blossom from buzz to stardom, the basketball world often prescribes the “leap.” How to make that leap depends on the player’s current skillset and how they shore up their weaknesses, but the universal sign of arrival is the ability to take over a game against top competition. Giannis Antetokounmpo did just that on Tuesday, tying a career-high 34 points while adding 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals, and 2 blocks in a 118-101 win against LeBron’s Cavaliers.
The breadth of the stat-line is immense, but marks a new normal that the burgeoning star has been settling into since his unprecedented move to point guard. Through 18 games, Giannis is averaging an eye-popping 22.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.2 steals, and 2.2 blocks per game. Since the NBA started tracking steals and blocks in the 1973-74 season, there have been 32 player seasons averaging 20/5/5 with 2+ steals per game (most recently including Stephen Curry last season, and Russell Westbrook the past two). Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has averaged 20/5/5 with 2+ blocks in a season, doing so twice in the 1970’s. No player has ever averaged 20/5/5/2/2 over the course of a full season, as Giannis has nearly a quarter of the way into the 2016-17 season. Here’s how he stacks up against the rest of the league in those areas:
|NBA Per-Game Rank|
For all of the numbers that loosely define this Greek demigod, perhaps most remarkable is the one he will acquire on Tuesday, December 6th: his 22nd birthday. Taylor Swift jokes aside, the number is enough to spark existential questions among his #millennial cohort (Giannis is nineteen days older than me, for example, and I don’t even know what makes up the halves in my coffee’s half-and-half). Antetokounmpo is in the midst of his fourth NBA season at an age younger than some of the most highly touted prospects of this year’s draft (Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, etc.), showing room for even more growth. And I mean that literally as I do figuratively – Giannis has grown two inches since the Bucks drafted him 15th overall in 2013. He’s now listed at 6’11” and 222 pounds. Oh, and he’s running the point, remember?
Giannis’ 6.1 assists-per-game average is good for 18th in the league, but still sits behind teammate and more-traditional guard Matthew Dellavedova‘s 6.2 APG. Giannis has shared the court with Dellavedova for 68% of his minutes to this point in the season. Coach Jason Kidd has strayed from a full-Greek switch, using Dellavedova to help Giannis grow, despite all of the point forward hype. That isn’t to say what he’s doing is anything less than novel; to borrow from Kanye West, “this shit ain’t regular.” Using NBA.com’s tracking stats, we can take a closer look at Antetokounmpo’s distribution skills through his teammate’s shooting percentages following his passes. The color-coded columns in the table below represent the difference between post-Giannis-pass field goal percentage and their overall numbers:
That’s a lot of green (traditionally, green is good). Overall, the Bucks, minus Giannis, are shooting at a 44.2% clip this season. Following a pass from Giannis, that percentage ups to 47.6%. This isn’t an exact science, of course, but it offers a little more context to how efficient his passes are at setting up buckets.
Now that we’ve added passing efficiency to the versatile Greek arsenal, it’s about that time in the piece where we note the player’s shortcomings. And despite the seeming invulnerability painted in the above picture, there are shortcomings. In the first table, we established that Giannis is among the NBA’s top-20 in per game rates for points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks this season, but he also ranks highly in turnovers (3.4 TOV/G, 6th in NBA) and personal fouls (3.8 PF/G, 2nd in NBA). Neither of these should come as much of a surprise, as young players typically find these areas one of the more difficult challenges to overcome as they try to transition to the speed and physicality of the NBA, and/or try to find comfort in their own bodies. Nor does he necessarily need to focus on bringing these numbers down, per se.
The top five names in turnovers per game this year read like an All-NBA Team of skill and #Process: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, LeBron James, Joel Embiid. The kicker there is that the top four also happen to be the top four in terms of assists per game this season, giving them each assist-to-turnover ratios above 2.0, while Giannis sits at 1.79. Another step up in his passing skills could help his offensive efficiency, at least in this measure, just as effectively as a slash in his turnover rate. As far as fouls go, only the aggravated DeMarcus Cousins sits above Giannis on a per-game basis, which shows if nothing else that one can still be a star even if they’re in foul trouble a bit too often. Furthermore, fouls are a fickle stat that come with the territory when you’re a prolific shot blocker and pickpocket. As long as he’s not fouling out at an alarming rate, it’s nothing to lose sleep over.
The final piece of the offensive puzzle is to look at shooting; Giannis may be scoring 22 per game, but just how efficient is he at putting the ball in the hoop? For that, we turn to Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%), which adjusts shooting percentages to account for the fact that threes are worth more points. Giannis has shown marked improvement in eFG% each year, culminating in an impressive 54.4% percentage so far this season. To put that into perspective, I plotted each player averaging over 15 shots per game on the below graph by their eFG%.
Of the 38 players that qualified for this cursory sample, Giannis had the seventh-highest eFG%, ranking just ahead of LeBron James (who is quite good at the basketball). Russell Westbrook’s orange dot secures both the lowest eFG% and highest FGA of the group thanks to his scorched-earth campaign this year, while a pair of Warriors unsurprisingly find themselves atop the efficiency leaderboards. Meanwhile, younger players like Devin Booker tend to find their efficiencies dropping when thrust into an early scoring role, with some exceptions. What makes Giannis so efficient is his ability to get to the rim and finish, as seen in his highlight tapes.
His unique combination of length, speed, and control allows him to walk or eurostep into the lane virtually at will. Or he might unleash a killer spin move to get around the defender, that is if he doesn’t feel like just going over them. This has culminated in a total of 45 dunks this season, good for fifth-most in the NBA. While this is impressive in itself, it also inflates his shooting percentage. Giannis is “shooting” at a whopping 72.1% clip within 3 feet of the basket, but as you move further out it quickly turns ugly.
|Giannis FG% By Distance|
|0-3||3-10||10-16||16 < 3||3P|
These are the numbers that have prompted talks of a “broken” jump shot. Giannis may be able to finish at the rim about as often as he wants right now, but as the season wears on and teams grow more wary of his game, the lane might not be open as much as he’d like, especially with the team still missing Khris Middleton‘s floor spacing for an extended period of time. If and when the Bucks become a playoff team, defenses will crack down, and he’ll have to show a consistent jump shot to keep them honest if he truly wants to be a game-changing postseason presence.
The past week established Giannis as a top-15 player in the NBA at this snapshot in his career. It’s likely that this season, his first truly committing to the point forward role, will mark a key turning point in his career narrative. What remains to be seen is if the positional transition will mark the final leap to his peak skill, or if a developed jump shot will catapult him into superstar status. Of course, a single Giannis stride outpaces the average person’s leap, so it would be unwise to bet against The Greek’s next step.
Thoughts About the Thoughts
Ben: The NBA is the best because it’s a league where there are at least two players that can euro-step into a dunk, which doesn’t seem like it should be possible: Andrew Wiggins with his maple-step into dunk and Giannis with his patented fake pass into gyro-step dunk.
Brian: Basketball-Reference’s Player Efficiency Rating has him seventh behind five players who are all but single-handedly being the focus of each of their team’s plays, and Kevin Durant (who is proving his being better than Steph this season) and Chris Paul (through whom the Clippers’ impressive offense runs). Point is, despite the ugly FG% as he moves farther and farther back, he’s playing in the league of the most well-developed players the game has to offer, and his maturation of skills is not even hitting their peak.
Featured Image Credit: Aaron Gash/AP