If you want the Milwaukee Bucks to ascend in the NBA's Eastern Conference any time soon, you need Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo to become impact players. That pressure to develop is never going to disappear, but early strides made by both players in the 2014-15 season should be enough to get Bucks fans excited about the possibilities. Although Jabari and Giannis are different players blessed with different skills, the early highlights and lowlights focus in on similar issues. Let's break this down, in article and podcast form, starting with Antetokounmpo.
Outside shooting is an area for concern. Giannis converted just 28.1% (57/203) of his shots beyond the restricted area in his rookie season. He's bumped that discouraging figure up a bit this season to 33.3% (12/36), but the faint sound you hear in the distance is the death knell for a Giannis-as-Durant pipe dream. That's not to say Gumby returned for his second season as the same player, however. He's made real improvements with assertiveness in half-court sets and finishing around the rim. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph know what I'm talking about. Giannis is becoming more of a face-up PF than a PG or 3&D wing, and that's okay.
There's a give and take to this transformation. Antetokounmpo's three-point rate has plummeted from 28.2% of total shots to a paltry 9.8%. His assist rate has slipped from 12.1% to 9.1%, and his free throw rate has dropped to the level of mere mortals. On the other side of the coin, turnovers are way down and rebounding rates are rising. His scoring efficiency (57.3% TS) is high enough to make us raise both eyebrows, and he's relying less on teammates to set up his scoring opportunities. We liked the idea of PF Giannis from the start, so perhaps we're biased when it comes to appreciating this evolutionary track, but watching Giannis find himself on the floor has been fun.
We discussed the progress of Jabari and Giannis in our latest podcast episode.
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The expansion of Giannis' scoring toolkit has reinforced his aggressiveness. To go from posting 15+ points just four times in an entire season to breaking a personal single-game record for points twice in one week is a nice way to mark meaningful progress. Frank put it well in his piece last week:
In the bigger picture, the good news is that Giannis is finally offering some hints as to how he will score consistently--the biggest question about a player whose otherworldly combination of size and skill should make him capable of just about anything. Late last season we saw the first hints of a post game from Giannis, a weapon he used to increasing effect in Vegas, the preseason, and first couple weeks of the regular season. Put a smaller guy on him, and Giannis can work his way into the post for good looks thanks to his exceptional length. Put a bigger guy on him, and Giannis can face up and go at him like a long-limbed tornado of arms, legs and elbows (just ask the Grizzlies).
If you want to visualize his progress, here's a year-to-year look at the shot charts for Giannis:
He's still shifting the pieces into place, but Milwaukee's blue chip rookie prospect doesn't look intimidated or overmatched (on either end of the floor) in this early block of the season. Jabari's breakout performance against the Pistons provided a glimpse of what he can become, and his strong first half in Miami was enough to keep that memory fresh in our minds. An inability to draw fouls has compounded the impact of Parker's shooting struggles, but Jason Kidd believes the foul calls will come in due time (via the Journal Sentinel):
"He's a basketball player; he knows how to play," Kidd said. "When you see a guy 6-9 lead the break and get down the court in 3 seconds, he brings something to the table.
"Being able to finish, too, it's kind of the LeBron James-type player who can get the rebound, get down the court that fast and be able to finish. For him, it's understanding where shots are going to come from. What are good shots? What are bad shots?
"Understanding you're not going to get any calls, being a rookie. It's just part of the business side of things. In college that might be a foul, but here you've got to play on. It's just understanding all those little things. He doesn't know any of the tricks yet. Most rookies don't."
Here's a look at Jabari's shot chart through 10 games:
Parker is going most of his work in the short corners and at the rim. He's also operating from the left elbow a bit. Here's the heat map for Jabari from the excellent NBASavant.com:
All in all, this is a pretty nice start to the season for Giannis and Jabari. Antetokounmpo's offensive game is blossoming and Parker is still a favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year. We'll take it. That said, we want more. Who doesn't want more? The Bucks need more if this plan is truly ever going to come together, but there's still plenty of time to make it happen. Take a listen to the podcast and let us know what you think in the comments. With so many dunks from these two guys, I decided to create an NBA Jam mockup to celebrate the early success of Giannis and Jabari. Enjoy.