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Giannis Antetokounmpo: Bucks ‘freak’ has finally grown from showstopper to superstar

Jonathan Raymond writes we've seen enough this season to conclude that the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo is beginning to take the leap his talent has long promised.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is 17th in the NBA in scoring per game this season. Photo: Morry Gash / AP Photo; Illustration: Jonathan Raymond / The National
Giannis Antetokounmpo is 17th in the NBA in scoring per game this season. Photo: Morry Gash / AP Photo; Illustration: Jonathan Raymond / The National

It’s here. The Giannis-Antetokounmpo-blossoms-into-a-superstar season is upon us.

It’s a bit staggering to consider that Antetokounmpo, who has been the NBA’s most projectable player pretty much since he arrived in the league, is in his fourth season with the Milwaukee Bucks now. He has played in over 250 NBA games, scored over 3,200 points and is closing in on 8,000 minutes played. And he doesn’t even turn 22 until next week.

The Greek born to Nigerian immigrants in Athens flashed obvious and rare talent even as a spindly, 19-year-old rookie three years ago. Standing 6ft 11in with a 7ft 3in wingspan and unrealistically fleet, Antetokounmpo evoked some unfathomable cross between Kevin Durant and, like, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was nicknamed “The Greek Freak” and nothing felt stretched about it.

It felt like he would eventually be able to do anything once he learnt how to properly harness those long limbs of his. And he did, at times. He has been a great defender inside and out almost from the get-go, he slowly emerged as a capable dribbler, his playmaking vision has grown and grown, he can dunk like you wouldn’t believe.

There have been games over the past couple seasons when it all comes together and he looks like the best basketball player on Earth. But not so totally enough, for long enough, that he has been quite more than tantalisingly close to superstardom.

He’s there now.

Antetokounmpo was the heartbeat of Milwaukee’s 118-101 win over the champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night. He scored 34 points (equalling a career best) on 13-of-19 shooting, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished five assists, snagged five steals and blocked two shots. It’s the kind of jaw-dropping, do-everything line he’s shown us at his best for a few seasons, and against LeBron and the champions at that.

And it’s not a mere flash this year. Last Friday he put up 29 points with six rebounds and 11 assists in a six-point loss to the Toronto Raptors. The week before that he scored 30, with four rebounds and six assists, in a three-point loss to the Golden State Warriors. That’s 93 points, 22 rebounds and 22 assists against three of the final four teams in last year’s play-offs.

Antetokounmpo has improved substantially as a scorer every year he’s been in the league, and now he’s finally becoming a real force. His 22.8 points per game are over five points better than last season’s 17.2, and coming at a career-high field goal percentage (51.4 per cent).

Antetokounmpo is beginning to figure out how to use his insane size, speed and strength to be close to unguardable inside. He can go over smaller defenders with his height and length, and he can snake under and around larger bodies with his agility. Practically nobody can match his combination of both. The forward has become so smart and so evasive, with so many tricks to get to and finish at the rim.

It’s truly something to watch, the way he snakes around inside and then darts out of nowhere, the way he ducks under and pops up, simply stretching his arms over and past a defender. His 10.1 attempts per game inside five feet lead the NBA, and his 68.5 per cent shooting rate in that range is better than everyone with at least six attempts except LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

He’s flitting around the key and cutting into space where he can get the ball and convert easy points – Antetokounmpo has scored 1.55 points per possession on cuts, second best among players with at least 25 such possessions this season.

And on top of that, the real icing on the cake, Antetokounmpo has become incredibly difficult to stop off the dribble. With his explosiveness, he needs to be only minimally capable for a dribble or two and then he can beat you in the air. His 6.1 points per game on drives is 15th in the NBA, just behind LeBron and just ahead of DeMarcus Cousins.

More lethally, with his length and his speed, the enormity of his stride, and his ability to leap, he significantly shortens the court. That combined with his emergent elasticity around the basket, and he’s nearly unstoppable in transition.

His 95 points in transition are fourth in the NBA, and at 1.38 points per such possession he ranks fourth among the top-20 in transition scoring. Watch him run a break sometime, how quickly and fluidly he gets down the court, and how he rises up to finish. Even when he doesn’t get totally past a defender for a smooth layup or dunk, Antetokounmpo has a knack for nudge-offs and body bumps that lead to awkward little push shots from close range he can convert. Points are points.

He’s more of a creator now, too. He’s becoming the kind of gravitational force around which defences bend, and he’s learnt quickly how to exploit that, with his assist percentage skyrocketing from 13.1 two seasons ago, to 20.0 last year, to a highly impressive 30.8 so far this campaign. Antetokounmpo has become very effective at creating drive-and-kick opportunities, curling inside and opening pockets for other teammates near the basket and occasionally dishing off in transition.

His points created from assists per game is, according to NBA.com, 15.2, 14th in the NBA. All while his usage rate his gone from 19.6 per cent, to 22.3 and now to 28.6.

And Antetokounmpo is as nightmarish a defender as ever – even better, really. He’s among the leaders in shots defended from 25-29 feet this season, at 11.6 per game, and it speaks to what a deterrent his length is outside that his opponents’ percentage on such shots, 27.0, isn’t even remotely approached by anyone else who defends that frequently from that range.

When he shifts closer to the rim, where he defends 4.7 attempts per game, his 43.7 per cent opponents’ shooting compares favourably with someone like, say, Draymond Green (42.0 per cent).

Overall, by BasketballReference metrics, he’s reached all-star territory – .192 win shares/48 from .121 last season, plus-7.8 box plus/minus from plus-2.4 last year. He’s been credited with 2.1 win shares in just 15 games this season, and he produced a very solid 7.1 in 80 last year. By each of ESPN’s trio of catch-all analytics, he’s a top-12 player this season.

If all the number-crunching feels a bit obtuse, perhaps it is. In fact, just go watch Giannis play. It’s one of the more unique and out-and-out fun experiences right now in basketball.

They called him the “Greek Freak” from early days because of how spectacularly he could wow, if only haltingly at first.

Now he’s doing it just about every night, and the Bucks, winners of three of four and back to 8-8, have a chance to grow into something special this year as their special talent grows himself into the truly upper-echelon player he has long promised to become.

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Updated: November 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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