The season's first week left us still hoping to see breakout games from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. The season's second weekend delivered them.
The maturation of Parker and Antetokounmpo may well prove the defining storyline of the Bucks' not-so-distant future, and back-to-back games against the Pistons and Grizzlies reminded us why the two 19-year-olds are worth the fuss. On Friday it was Parker who finally broke loose for 18 points and a slew of impressive dunks, while Saturday was Antetokounmpo's turn to do the "career-high 18 points" thing.
The most encouraging bit about Antetokounmpo's night? Aside from a home-run pass from Jerryd Bayless for an easy dunk, basically everything Giannis did right in the second half came from halfcourt sets. Despite the Grizzlies' intimidating size up front with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Jason Kidd once again gave Giannis extended run at the power forward spot and encouraged his young club to exploit Antetokounmpo's quickness advantage against the big bad Grizz. After driving and drawing shooting fouls on Jon Leuer and Tayshaun Prince in the first two minutes of the fourth, Giannis sized up and attacked Gasol (twice) and Randolph for three consecutive baskets down the stretch, the last an and-one on Randolph that gave the Bucks a 90-89 lead with 2:23 remaining. After the game, Kidd summed up the decisive quarter with seven words that should leave all Bucks fans giddy.
"We played through Giannis. He didn't settle."
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).
The end result has been healthy bumps in both usage (from 14.6% last year to 18.6% this year) and efficiency (51.8% true shooting last year to 58.5% through seven games), reflective of an altogether different type of confidence he's showing to make plays with the ball. And while concerns over his jumper are legitimate, Giannis thankfully isn't letting that distract from everything he can already do well. So far he's yet to even attempt a two longer than 16 feet while cutting his three point attempts from 28% of his attempts last year to just 12% this year. Add in his usual high free throw rate and improved accuracy from the stripe, and you have a few of the reasons for his field goal percentage rising from 41.4% to 51.9%.
The other obvious improvement: An ability to make some of the in-between shots that differentiate premium scorers from the rest. Giannis' 60% shooting in the restricted area is a nice number for a guy who takes nearly 60% of his shots at the rim, but he's also managed to hit over 40% from 3-10 feet and 33% from 10-16 feet per Basketball Reference (vs. 17% and 11%, respectively, last year).
Right now it's all small sample size stuff, but we've seen him connect on a handful of shot types that could be invaluable parts of his toolkit going forward. There's the Dirk leg-kick fadeaway from the post (good luck blocking that), the hanging glasser going left, and we even saw a wing pull-up from him in the second quarter on Saturday night. Whether any of those become go-to moves is yet to be determined, but watching him start to spread his wings has made for riveting stuff early in the season.