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Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Hidden Talent

There’s still a special aspect of Giannis’ game we haven’t talked about. It’s time we talk about it.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo is special.

“A physical outlier,” says Michael Pina of Fox Sports.

“He's on a path the league simply hasn't seen,” notes Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report.

“Wait, so you want me to call Giannis a unicorn for a piece you’re writing? Well...I mean, yeah, I guess you could say that,” proclaims Frank Madden of SB Nation’s Brew Hoop.

But it seems as though we’re soon to run out of talking points on why he’s so special. It’s always the same old stuff: “nobody that long has ever had those kinds of ball skills,” “his combination of size and fluidity is unheard of,” “the fact that he can protect the rim on defense and run pick-and-rolls on offense may truly revolutionize the NBA for years to come,” blah blah blah.

However there is something that is rarely heard discussed on its own in discussions centered around Giannis: his absolutely monolithic transition defense.

A few years back, I read an article from Zach Lowe on Danny Green’s hidden superpower—transition defense. It was an incredibly intriguing concept for me at the time; until that point, nearly every time I had heard or read about transition defense, it was in the context of a team as a whole (e.g. Houston’s dreadfulness in that category last year, Steve Clifford emphasis on it for the team as a whole, etc.). Even then, those discussions always resorted back to a conversation centered around effort and “energy”; if a team wants to stop opposing fast break opportunities, it’s pretty likely they can do so at at least a moderate rate.

Then came Lowe’s feature on Green, demonstrating how a player as an individual could make a direct impact on a opponent’s transition opportunity. But the piece was centered around a 6’6” guard with a 6’10” wingspan (weak), so it wasn’t necessarily about chase down blocks and highlights of the sort. Rather, Lowe zeroed in on Green’s ability to rely on unpredictability and fundamental positioning to make up for his lack of length.

Giannis, on the other hand, clearly faces no such physical shortcomings. While players like Green make their living in transition on confusion and smart positioning, Giannis can do much of the same, while using his god-given physical tools (and some savvy of his own) to physically alter shots, and essentially shut down fast breaks before they even begin.

That looks like this: Having his momentum going away from the opposing hoop...

...using his unfairly long legs to not only stick with a guard in Fournier, but actually gain ground on him to get to here...

...then finally erasing Fournier’s shot at the rim:

While he’s shown his elite ability to cover ground in these scenarios, it’s not always vital to his destructiveness in these situations; oftentimes he can merely wait for the player to come to him, if they so choose.

When he gets to his spot early, he can pull his momentum to a halting stop to gather himself and swallow his opponent whole.

Highlight reel blocks aren’t the only way for his impeding presence to be felt. Oftentimes, his long strides and length alone are enough to thwart a fast break chance. More often than not, it does the trick just as well.

It’s gotten to the point now where if Giannis’ mere presence inside the three-point arc during an opponent break-away is enough to persuade a ball handler to look elsewhere for scoring opportunities.

But players, like Butler here, are catching on and refusing to even test Giannis. Consequently, the effect of his staggering presence is less palpably perceived each day. Rest assured, regardless of that presence manifesting itself in an eye-popping chase down block, it is undeniably at play on countless opponent fast breaks to this day.

In fact, there were two obvious examples from last night’s game versus Atlanta by itself:

Even when players decide not to test Giannis’ ability and search for outlets in transition, he still manages to be omnipresent in any given scenario. In the second clip alone he deters three opportunities at the rim, then somehow manages to contest a would-be open three pointer in the corner. Say what you will about players with a knack similar to Antetokounmpo’s for chase down blocks; none have that same ubiquitous and stymieing presence exhibited there, let alone on a nightly basis.

It’s a presence that’s incredibly rare in the NBA and is the product of those same things we always talk about with Giannis: His incredible length, matched with remarkable agility and body control; his ability to use that length to cover unfair amounts of ground in short periods of time; and his incredibly elastic legs that allow him to wait patiently for the player to rise up for a layup, then almost instantaneously reach the peak of his jump. Couple those things with a player who’s already demonstrated adept timing as a shot blocker, and you’re left with a lurking, fire-breathing, wrecker-of-all-worlds mutant, breathing down your neck on nearly all of your team’s fast break opportunities. In a league where pretty much all teams find their most efficient looks in transition, that’s an awfully imposing tool to have for any team, especially as they often lead to transition opportunities going the other way.

And when Giannis can be a monumental force in both of those facets in the same sequence?

At that point I guess the only rational response is to run for cover as fast as you possibly can. Just make sure when you look over your shoulder you don’t see seven feet of flailing limbs in pursuit. That tends to be problematic for some people.