Culture of Hoops

God’s Pristine Clay: The (Unlimited?) Potential of Giannis Antetokounmpo

Image courtesy Milwaukee Bucks.

Image courtesy of Milwaukee Bucks.

What’s perhaps most tantalizing about Giannis Antetokounmpo is not his definitive excellence in any particular dimension of basketball, but instead his tremendous potential to excel in so many aspects of the game. At just 19 years of age, he already boasts the physical credentials to compete in the NBA — tremendous leaping ability, dangerous end-to-end foot speed, dexterous hands and a Gumby-esque wingspan that stretches 7’3” in length — but it is his intuitive sense for the sport and apparent comfort with all of its demands that set him apart, and gives spectators the sense they are watching a prodigy discover himself before their very eyes.

At 6’9” and growing, Antetokounmpo is of prototypical small forward height for the post-LeBron world, but his slim build (roughly 205 pounds) makes him better suited to the shooting guard spot, where one of his distinguished contemporaries, Paul George, enjoys All-NBA success with a comparable body type. George has a better shooting stroke than Giannis and demonstrates better discipline within team defensive schemes, but otherwise, the two are comparable in a number of ways: most notably in terms of their above-average ball-handling skills, athleticism and hawking on-ball defense.

Also difficult to avoid in conversations about Antetokounmpo are parallels to Kevin Durant, who entered the league with a similar dearth of mass and, like Giannis, was impelled by strength issues to play the shooting guard his first season. Antetokounmpo cannot score like Durant — few can — but on January 11th during the Milwaukee Bucks-Oklahoma City Thunder game when the two players matched up, it was striking to see someone grapple with Durant on a more-or-less equal basis, physically. Both men stand roughly 6’10” with long arms, and on a few shot attempts Durant appeared truly and uncharacteristically flummoxed to have someone so thoroughly in his airspace. Here’s the clip:


Though Giannis is still honing his technical skills as a defender, he clearly holds his own by the merits of his natural defensive instincts and physical tools alone. Right now he reads as a plus defender, but if he refines his footwork and technique, there’s no telling how destructive he could become in the future.

Beyond the lofty comparisons and grand projections, though, it should be acknowledged that Antetokounmpo cuts his own distinctive figure as a player. He is a skilled and willing passer, as capable of dishing on the break as he is threading a bounce pass on the pick and roll. His court sense is impressive: he understands when to swing the ball and where, and shows no signs of becoming a ball-stopper. He has been a bit turnover prone so far, but that’s to be expected from a first-year player who just turned 19 in December. When taken part and parcel with his plucky and creative efforts to produce looks for himself and teammates, coughing up the ball a few times per game is forgivable.

As a scoring threat, Giannis is undeniably raw. His jumper isn’t unappealing to watch and seems mechanically sound, but its results have been spotty, particularly beyond the arc, where he’s hitting at a 30 percent clip. It’s hard to criticize Antetokounmpo for this shortcoming, though, because he seems to understand his limitations. He rarely launches a jumper he shouldn’t take, and most of his attempts from the field come at the rim. Considering Giannis is a skilled finisher around the hoop, this is a good thing: the majority of his points come inside the restricted area. Outside shooting will come with time, provided he puts in the work.

Besides, the moments that really make you sit up and take notice of Antetokounmpo are not the sort that translate directly to the stat sheet. His flashes of eyebrow-raising, unorthodox brilliance are best enjoyed visually, with the proper context to underscore their unconventional nature. It’s downright exceptional to watch Giannis soar to the rim, or use his freakish length and uncanny second-jump ability to snare an offensive rebound in traffic.

Look at this sequence against the Raptors where he glides to the hoop, adjusts in mid-air, controls his own rebound, put it back up in a flash, misses again, bats it to himself and resets the offense.

It’s ten seconds of unmitigated athletic superiority amidst a throng of the world’s best athletes. Unfortunately, he does commit an offensive foul at the end of this play; but that serves only to remind that Antetokounmpo is an unfinished product, a lump of pristine clay begging to be molded into something exquisite.

The impulse to anoint Giannis a superstar-in-training comes strong when he uncorks a highlight, but it is important to remember that he is still averaging just seven points a game on 45 percent shooting, and that for every enormous block he records there is a blown rotation or bad gamble to match it. Older, wiser players know that sometimes it’s better to react than act, but Antetokounmpo is an excitable young man who loves to make plays. Sometimes his aggressiveness gets him into trouble and hurts the team, not that the dismal Bucks can’t afford a few lapses. As Giannis learns to harness his energy and activity more effectively, it will serve him well in the long run.

In the end, all we can say for sure is that Giannis passes the eye test, and that even though he has his highs and lows, the highs are more memorable and the lows feel excusable. The young man is a fan favorite, he works hard, and complements his prodigious physical gifts with fluid instincts for the game. Very little about him fails to inspire confidence. Perhaps it is premature to board his bandwagon in full force – we are dealing with a small sample size, after all, as Antetokounmpo has played just 36 games and only started 16 – but I’ll venture this claim nonetheless:

I expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to excel greatly.

He may never become a volume scorer like George or Durant, but his production and impact should at the very least mirror that of, say, Andre Iguodala. The aura around him is just too strong to deny, and the specter of an elite-facilitating, lockdown-defending, 15-point-per-game-scoring player practically hangs over him as he plays. With the ingredients for success in place, only one true question remains: from the remarkable clay of Giannis Antetokounmpo, just how impressive a player can be molded?

Time will tell.



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