Kobe Bryant is an icon in the storied history of the NBA. You can still see his jersey donned by fans in Los Angeles (and elsewhere), and his shadow still looms large over the game’s current player corps as well.
Russell Westbrook. Kawhi Leonard. Paul George. These are just some of the big-time names who have sought out Kobe for advice and guidance on how to further hone their craft. After all, why not seek the counsel of a guy who obsessed over every fiber of his game over the course of a Hall of Fame career?
We made a lot around these parts when Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has eschewed working out with his contemporaries like LeBron James, also got a chance to make the pilgrimage to meet with Bryant. Kobe has always been a fan of Giannis’, speaking highly of him and lobbing lofty challenges his way.
The difference between Giannis and other disciples of the Order of the Mamba was perhaps no more evident than in the Boston Celtics series, where Giannis led the Bucks past a tough-but-limited Boston team in five games. Kyrie Irving drew all the attention with his poor performances and uncertain future, but it’s interesting to look at the divergence between Giannis and another pupil of Kobe’s: Jayson Tatum. Tatum said in an interview with ESPN:
“Kobe Bryant was the reason I started playing basketball, always was and will be my favorite player of all time. I love the way he could get his shot off, his footwork down in the post, just his determination to be the best player. He had an incredible work ethic, incredible drive, just the killer mentality that he had.”
There are few members of the league whose games resemble Kobe’s more closely than Tatum, whereas Giannis’ game is more like a notable teammate of Bryant’s. They both took notes from the same great, but it was Giannis who thrived and Tatum who faltered in the 2019 postseason. Why?
Based on what we observed in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Giannis took Kobe seriously, while Tatum took him literally.
When we say that Tatum took Kobe literally, we look at the actual basketball Tatum played in the playoffs. In 9 postseason games, Tatum averaged a merely “okay” 15.2 points (on splits of 0.438/0.323/0.744), 6.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists. Against an overmatched Indiana Pacers team, his statistical output was more impressive, but all the way through the playoffs Tatum tried to make hay inside the arc rather than behind it. His preference for two-pointers is well-documented, but things were starting to look up in the first round. Tatum was, at least starting to, going with the flow rather than against it.
But then the going got tough, which forces people to rely on their comfortable habits. For Tatum, this showed in his shot chart. Tatum (a 40.0% shooter from deep on his career) boasted a lower-than-expected 3PAr (0.312) in no small part because of his preponderance for cooking up midrange shots off the dribble...just like Kobe was known for. Because of his talent, Tatum was still able to convert some of these looks into points (just like Kobe was known for), but the very process of seeking out these bad shots helped hold back the Celtics’ offense.
Tatum is a young player with tons of room to grow, and his scoring will always make him useful to an NBA team. He’s also far from the only reason for Boston’s defeat (he might not even be in the top three). But how far does fancy footwork and free throw line jump shots take you in the modern NBA? At least in this case, it knocks you out in the second round.
When watching Jayson Tatum, you see a number of similarities to Kobe Bryant. Not the same when you witness Giannis Antetokounmpo, at least in terms of what actually happens on the court.
Giannis is bigger and longer than Kobe ever was, and as a result is best used around the rim rather than elevating for shots further away. But when we say that Giannis took Kobe literally, it’s because Giannis didn’t try to adopt what Kobe did, but rather how he did it.
I thought this Kobe breakdown of Giannis was actually pretty insightful and I learned a few things. Specifically, angles and how Giannis can change *where* he catches the ball. https://t.co/WdN6henLDz— Ugh (@2LTDiesel) May 12, 2019
This Greek-centric episode of Kobe Bryant’s Detail (available on ESPN+) was critical of a number of Giannis’ plays in Game 1 of the Boston series, which happened to be his worst game of the playoffs. Where Kobe’s influence on Giannis comes through, though, is how much different his impact was from that point on, and how he imposed his will on the games like he had all season.
A core component of Kobe’s #MambaMentality is to constantly be on the offensive. Attack first, attack last, and no matter what you do: attack the opponent. In Giannis’ presumptive first MVP season, he has somehow elevated his ability to manifest this behavior. And that there, is the reason why Giannis’ work with Kobe was so valuable. Giannis didn’t take Kobe’s moves, but his mindset.
How far will that take Giannis on his NBA journey? How far did it take Kobe?