It didn't take long for Giannis Antetokounmpo to capture the attention of NBA fans inside Milwaukee or across the country, but until fairly recent that attention was frequently accompanied by a rather harsh narrative: Giannis was a sight to behold on the basketball court, but he really wasn't that good.
"Not that good" is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot for marginal NBA players, but it's obviously a relative term--simply by virtue of being on an NBA roster, every player in the league can be assumed to be, at the very least, quite good at basketball. But compared to the most elite players on the planet, some of these guys can look pretty inept at times.
The "not good" narrative may have been overblown with Giannis at times. He had crummy metrics and low per-game averages as a rookie, though his talent was undeniable -- especially for an 18-year-old just months removed from playing second division basketball in Greece. But whenever somebody extols something on the internet, the internet is quick to produce three more to shout it down. Such is the way of things.
Fast forward a year, and it's getting to be much more difficult to shout down Giannis Antetokounmpo these days.
In his last six games, Giannis is averaging 15.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. He's using almost 22% of Milwaukee's possessions and has a true shooting percentage of 58.9%. His turnover rate, arguably the biggest knock on his performance to date, is a paltry 10.2, mostly due to a five turnover night against Miami last Sunday. Are those eye-popping numbers? Not by superstar standards. But he's been very consistent, and perhaps more important, he's looked effortless in racking them up at times.
Bucks fans insisted all of last season that the numbers didn't come close to capturing what Giannis was doing on the court -- or his ultimate potential. Like the detractors, they (we) liked to exaggerate, but both sides made fair points. Now though, anybody who's watched Giannis a decent amount this season knows that what he's doing goes beyond his now-impressive box score lines.
Similar to how Larry Sanders "broke out" when he stopped shooting jumpers and focused on walling off the rim, Giannis has seemingly discovered how to leverage his incredible length and quickness to attack the rim over, around, and through defenders. Not only is he finishing in the paint exceptionally well, but he's drawn at least seven free-throw attempts in four of his last six games. We've watched as defenders -- good defenders -- flail and stumble trying to stay in front of him or contest shots that seem to release from helplessly far away. Tom Ley writes at Deadspin.com that Giannis has been especially deadly driving to the left from the top of the key, scoring 1.06 points per possession on 15 such opportunities. When he drives left, Giannis seems to be more comfortable cutting off his own momentum and hanging for a fadeaway jumper just outside the paint, a shot he can usually get off relatively uncontested if a defender is focused on guarding the rim. Or he just takes it all the way to the rim and finishes with his left, something he did last night just minutes after going down with an ankle injury in overtime. This is the image of a player discovering he can do something that simply can't be stopped.
Whoops, there goes the Giannis-inspired hyperbole again. To be clear, there's still plenty to improve on for Antetokounmpo. While his scoring numbers have seen a big boost, his passing numbers have slacked a bit as Giannis focuses primarily on generating his own offense. He's not yet totally comfortable attacking a set defense, waiting for the reaction, and adjusting to make the best play. That should hopefully come in time. It's like learning to sing while playing guitar -- you've got to get really comfortable with one part, to the point where you can do it in your sleep, before trying to mix the two together.
Then again, I haven't even touched on his defense, which, while still subject to occasional ball-watching and trouble working around screens, has flummoxed some of the NBA's best scorers. When he's locked in on a ball-handler, we've seen Giannis swallow people up like some of the premier defenders in the NBA. He's even starting to have a Sandersesque impact on opponent decisions.
Progress is all anyone could have hoped for this early in Giannis' second season, and he's delivered in spades. Progress, promise, and a lot of excited fans.