A lot is made of passing the baton in sports. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird begat Michael Jordan, Jordan led to Kobe Bryant. After Kobe came LeBron James. James is closing in on the end of his basketball career, and the league is ripe for the taking.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the prime face of the NBA soon.
The Milwaukee Bucks ran through everyone during the regular season last year. They were the lone team to win 60-plus games. This success and his averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals led to the Greek Freak bringing home the MVP trophy at the end of the season, though their campaign ended without a ring (or NBA Finals appearance).
At 24 years old, Antetokounmpo is one of the youngest players to ever win the award. He doesn’t turn 25 until a month into this season.
Yet, he was completely dominant despite still being years away from reaching his prime. He’s been in the league for six seasons, and each one has seen him elevate his game to a new level.
The game has evolved, and Antetokounmpo is the result of that evolution. At 6’11”, he is the size of a 5 and has the length to match. (His wingspan measures 7’3”.) Yet, he operates closer to a 1 for the Bucks. (Thanks, former Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd.)
The Greek Freak spends the majority of his time on the floor with the ball in his hands as Milwaukee’s offense runs through him. Every other piece is out there in order to maximize his strengths; Bringing in former Atlanta Hawks Mike Budenholzer last season to coach this franchise has made that abundantly clear.
It was truly revolutionary for the franchise. The team shot 1,110 more three-pointers from the previous season, which breaks down to 13.5 more attempts a night.
Antetokounmpo shared the floor with no less than three potent outside shooters at all times. It forced defenders to pick their poison: Help on Giannis and give up an open three or stay with the perimeter players and allow him a clear lane to the rim.
It was just the first year and the Bucks looked unstoppable (until the Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, of course). Their 118.1 points per game led the entire league. Imagine what it could be now that the roster is more versed in Budenholzer’s system (even as questions remain about the somewhat re-tooled supporting cast).
Antetokounmpo could very well put together a repeat performance of his MVP-winning season a year ago, and it would possibly disappoint some observers. Media and fans are always looking for the next big thing, and last season was exactly that: A breath of fresh air for those who had grown tired of the LeBron James / Golden State Warriors eras.
Giannis was a player who didn’t come into the NBA with seemingly insurmountable hype following closely behind. He was originally an afterthought, someone who could only be seen playing against vastly inferior competition in a league that many executives weren’t scouting.
His introduction to the league came as a scrawny 18-year-old who was fascinated by smoothies. Today, he is arguably the single most dominant force in the NBA.
When he’s attacking downhill, he combines size, length, athleticism, speed and strength into one unrelenting assault on the rim. His .599 effective field-goal percentage was the third-highest in the NBA for a non-5 last year. Antetokounmpo is the king of the grab-and-go: He’ll collect a defensive rebound and then transition right into offense before the opposing team has a chance to get their wits about them.
The missing link to his game is a consistent outside shot. Last season, he made the jump to at least attempting open looks from behind the three-point line. He was streaky (25.6 percent on 2.8 attempts per game), and opponents would oftentimes live with the result.
Antetokounmpo’s form isn’t poor by any standards, but he’s currently using more of a set shot and needs a catch, time and space to get off his best attempts. However, with him having the ball in his hands more often than not, it is unlikely that he will end up with many catch-and-shoot chances.
If he is eventually able to get to league-average as a three-point shooter, then teams will be out of options in their attempts to corral him.
Defensively, there aren’t many players like him. In transition, Antetokounmpo is one of the rare players who are prolific in chase-down blocks. His length allows him to pop up on an unsuspecting opponent and erase what would otherwise be an easy basket.
Yet, he’s also a menace in half-court settings: He jumps passing lanes, defends the rim and guards all five positions on the floor. His 12.4 win shares ranked eighth of the 39 guards and forwards to average at least 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks
The biggest sticking point for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks from last year is that they failed to make it to the NBA Finals despite being the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference. He was unable to come up at the most crucial moment on the biggest stage of his NBA career. Instead, Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard was clearly the brightest star on the floor.
Giannis won’t necessarily be on a revenge tour this upcoming season, but he will need to show that last year was not a fluke occurrence.
Being the face of the league has its highs and lows. We have watched LeBron James do an unbelievable job in that place for the last decade, but he hasn’t been bulletproof, either.
All eyes will be on Giannis as he attempts to navigate—and hold onto—the basketball landscape now that he’s become more prodigy than novelty.
Everything about his history and what he’s done to develop his game says that he will handle this transition. However, what happens if Milwaukee is worse now that Malcolm Brogdon is gone? Would Antetokounmpo ever consider leaving for a bigger market?
He answered a lot of questions last year, but there are new ones waiting to be resolved now.
Read Part 4 here:
Brandon Jefferson is a staff writer at TBW. He covers the Atlanta Hawks for The BBall Index and is a contributing writer at Fansided. Brandon is the founding and only member of the Kevin Durant Stan Club.