Revisiting old drafts is an intoxicating habit for any sports
dweeb fan. The 2013 NBA draft class has been fascinating to watch for this reason — it’s less than two years later and the entire lottery would be ripped up and thrown out if the GMs (and former GMs) could do it all over again. It’s popular now, retrospectively, to point out that Giannis Antetokounmpo, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks at No. 15, would go somewhere near the top. (I hesitate to say he’d go No. 1 for fear that Rudy Gobert will one day be wearing this draft class around his waist like a leather belt.)
Antetokounmpo is beloved for a myriad of reasons, all deserved; that the ceiling on his potential is non-existent, still, after 140 career games, speaks loudly to why he garnishes so much intrigue around the league — and explains, in part, why so many teams were unsure of what exactly he was coming out of Greece in 2013.
The Greek Freak, as he is more commonly referred to (out of pure American laziness), had a career-high 29 points Monday on 11 for 16 shooting. He threw in five rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three steals, too, just for good measure. Antetokounmpo is far from finished developing this boundless, long-limbed game of his, but last night was an interesting look into what exactly he has in his arsenal after two seasons — and paired against basketball’s marquee phenom Anthony Davis no less.
Antetokounmpo is a disruptor, side-stepping into passing lanes the way black holes sneak up on galaxies. He is one of the many reasons why the Bucks lead the NBA with 17.3 turnovers forced per game. Milwaukee has the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (99.1), and its opponents are in the bottom five in opponent’s field goal and 3-point percentage. Head coach Jason Kidd has successfully transplanted his pressure-system defense to Milwaukee, betting correctly that if a bunch of old geezers in Brooklyn could make the playoffs using it, a collection of lengthy young guys would do even better. The Greek Freak is at the center of these plans, and for good reason, as you might guess it’s very distracting for point guards trying to run an offense when Antetokounmpo’s octopus body comes jumping at them.
But Antetokounmpo is far from perfect. Like many defenders his age, he overplays his hand a lot. Someday, Antetokounmpo could be a Kawhi Leonard — a defense unto himself who greatly limits (or destroys) an opponent’s top option — but he isn’t there yet. Take this play:
On perhaps the most important defensive trip of the night, Antetokounmpo was assigned to Davis, the best player on the floor. Antetokounmpo can guard every position, as he shuffled between Quincy Pondexter, Eric Gordon and Davis on Monday. His versatility is physical not mental — based on his scientifically puzzling combination of speed, height, length — and he isn’t yet a brainy defender. Considering the game situation, Antetokounmpo should have stayed glued to Davis, as Milwaukee’s goal, I presume, was to make someone other than the All-Star beat them; and Milwaukee definitely wanted no part of Davis getting a clean mid-range look, where Davis has become one of the most formidable scorers in the world.
Antetokounmpo risked losing Davis to flail his meter stick arms ambiguously into foreign passing lanes, only to find himself in the paint when Davis catches the game-clinching assist from Dante Cunningham.
Another way Antetokounmpo gets himself into trouble is when he allows bigger players to bump him around. The Greek Freak often gets picked when chasing his defender, and until he puts on more weight, teams are correctly going to challenge him this way.
Antetokounmpo is once again guarding Davis here, hugging him at the nail. When Antetokounmpo cuts off Tyreke Evans on the drive, he accidentally traps himself, placing multiple bodies between he and Davis. True to his Greek ancestry, Antetokounmpo becomes Odysseus, and his personal Odyssey back to Davis is doomed by a wave of New Orleans bumps and picks.
This defensive lapse, resulting in a Pondexter corner 3-pointer, is a combination of things. When Antetokounmpo is guarding wings in the corner, he can’t help but to sniff out opportunities away from his man. Plenty of the time these aggressive reads on the ball pay off for Milwaukee. On this play, however, the Greek Freak forgets about Pondexter entirely, adopting Omer Asik as his man and leaving an easy Davis-to-Pondexter score. Note that Asik bumps him well, absorbing Antetokounmpo into the paint an extra second, buying enough time for his teammates. He’s raw, but under Kidd and his system, the Greek Freak is going to keep getting better and better on that end of the floor.
Where the majority of questions surrounding Antetokounmpo exist and where they have really always existed, is offensively, where all the same skills that bring him versatility on defense become ambiguous on offense. So what do we know about him as an offensive player? Well, for starters, we know he is special in transition and with space; on fastbreaks the past two seasons he occasionally provides some “Magic” moments. His wingspan and stride complicate anticipating his choices with the ball, and even at 20, he disguises his passes well for a non-point guard. He takes risks and turns the ball over a bit too much, but inexperienced players commit turnovers (unless they’re Anthony Davis), and I’m in favor of Antetokounmpo spreading his wings even if he can’t fly just yet.
This season he has grown in confidence on drives and post-ups, using his body in productive ways in the half court like he does in transition. Check out how he uses his body to shield away Davis:
That’s not an easy play! I’m not positive Antetokounmpo would have attempted a straight isolation drive on Davis last season, but he has challenged centers like Marc Gasol on the drive this year and been successful.
With growing confidence driving on bigger forwards, the Greek Freak has no pause taking smaller wing defenders to the deck. Perhaps his most exciting move, Antetokounmpo likes to set up his defender to the left, then spin right into a lay-up or, if he has enough space, a dunk. Watch him wave off his teammates to create a lethal 1-on-1 against Pondexter:
As I wrote about earlier this season, Antetokounmpo should become a special post-up 2-guard, feasting on smaller defenders who get stuck on him. Under Kidd, he has gotten more comfortable out of the post-up, both on scoring plays and passing out of the post.
When Milwaukee traded for Michael-Carter Williams at the deadline, much of the confusion was centered around how much the Bucks gave up (essentially the protected Lakers lottery pick) in order to acquire a point guard that can’t shoot. Milwaukee brass has sworn up and down that Carter-Williams will improve his technique under this coaching staff — that his shot isn’t broken — and that may be true. We also know that the main reason why Milwaukee brought Carter-Williams in was because of his 6-foot-6 frame though, as Kidd is clearly trying to build a very particular style of play, one that relies heavily on forcing turnovers and capitalizing in transition.
I say all of this because I believe the ideal offensive situation for Antetokounmpo is surrounding him with shooters. Post Greek Freak with two or three shooters around him and I’m not sure what the best line of defense would be. And when defenses play up on the perimeter, Antetokounmpo’s size, speed and instinct make him an excellent cutter.
His progression with Carter-Williams is going to be interesting. In the long term, improved jumper or not, I think most of the points available to Carter-Williams are going to be on drives and cuts. This makes the pick-and-roll with Greek Freak and MCW a bit complicated: neither player is a true 3-point threat and so both, ultimately, want to take the ball to the tin. Antetokounmpo improves their chances by seeking out Carter-Williams’ man, in this case Gordon. Watch Antetokounmpo slip his screen and take Gordon with him, creating an isolation:
The other defender on the play, Davis, has now been switched onto Carter-Williams, who runs to the corner. But remember, Carter-Williams isn’t a threat from the arc, and if Davis wanted too, he could blitz Antetokounmpo and force him to pass up the ball. Antetokounmpo wisely drove left, away from Davis, on this score, but a defense that anticipates the switch can snuff out this type of action. Watch how Asik takes away Antetokounmpo’s drive left, forcing him into a bad pass:
Carter-Williams wasn’t the point guard on that play, but this is where he will have to improve — either from deep or as a cutter — to keep defenses from loading up on Antetokounmpo. (It’ll be really interesting to see what chemistry develops between Greek Freak, MCW and Jabari Parker next season, and it’s too bad we have to wait until October to see it.)
There are no shortage of areas where Antetokounmpo is a bit rough around the edges. He lost a battle of wills with Gordon on a pick-and-roll switch early in the night, picking up a senseless offensive foul.
Until Antetokounmpo improves his mid-range and long-range shooting, defenses are going to use it against him. Nobody expects him to become LaMarcus Aldridge any time soon, but Antetokounmpo is hitting just 35.3 percent of shots between 16-24 feet, 86th out of 106 players with at least 100 attempts, per NBA.com. (Carter-Williams is dead last at 26.8 percent; I’m not 100 percent sure why Kidd doesn’t ban him from attempting these shots the rest of the season.) NBA.com says Antetokounmpo is 52 for 200 on jump shots this season which is, er, bad. So when Davis gets him to surrender a possession with a guarded, long 2-pointer with ten seconds left on the shot clock, that’s a huge win for New Orleans.
Milwaukee has a very bright future, and Antetokounmpo is a big, big part of it. As the Bucks head into the postseason just a year removed from posting the worst record in the NBA, much of that has to do with the second-year development of arguably the biggest steal of the 2013 NBA draft. Win, lose or draw in the first round, all eyes will be on Milwaukee next season, as year three for the Greek Freak, like Davis this season in New Orleans, figures to be appointment television.