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The Evolution of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s passing

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The Greek Freak is passing with even more purpose this season.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since that grainy Greek footage showed Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the break with his merry band of foot-smaller teammates, the tantalizing prospect of him evolving into a 7-foot point guard has ran through Milwaukee Bucks fans’ heads. After living through the Point Giannis years under Jason Kidd, and with defenses growing increasingly accustomed to erecting a dreaded wall, that dream is starting to feel a tad lofty. He’s not going to be Magic Johnson or LeBron James with their hall of fame ability to diagnose, dribble through and orchestrate a defense’s demise. But, if the past few Playoff demises showed us anything, it’s that some fresh playmaking juice from Giannis could be just what Dr. Budenholzer ordered to help this team reach their apex. This season, Antetokounmpo has upped not only his awareness when passing to his teammates, but his repertoire.

If you look at the raw numbers, Antetokounmpo’s assist totals aren’t drastically higher. Per-36, he’s at 6.5 assists, almost identical to his first two years under Bud. Plus, his assist percentage is down from last season. All of the surface numbers wouldn’t necessarily paint a dude who has improved what he can do as a floor reader. But then we get some sequences like this:

He navigates an inverted pick-and-roll, deals with the Rubio hedge, recovers to see a wall thrown at him and quickly diagnoses where the help is coming from (poor Anthony Edwards) and dishes to an open Khris Middleton in the corner. Giannis may have similar usage to past years, and similar assist totals, but he’s also accomplishing that on significantly fewer passes per game. That’s not inherently a bad thing, as he’s getting nearly as many assists on 10 fewer passes and touches per game than last year, per data from NBA.com.

Giannis Passing Data by Season

Season Touches PASSES MADE PASSES RECEIVED AST SECONDARY AST POTENTIAL AST AST PTS CREATED AST ADJ AST TO PASS% AST TO PASS% ADJ
Season Touches PASSES MADE PASSES RECEIVED AST SECONDARY AST POTENTIAL AST AST PTS CREATED AST ADJ AST TO PASS% AST TO PASS% ADJ
2020-21 71.1 41.7 47.7 6 0.5 11.7 16.2 6.7 14.5 16.1
2019-20 81.1 50.9 50.9 5.6 0.7 11.5 15 6.6 11 13
2018-19 82.5 54.3 54 5.9 0.6 11.5 15.4 6.6 10.8 12.2

The numerical difference is partially due to a slightly slower pace by Milwaukee this season (102.43 vs. 105.51 last year), but more assists on fewer passes is efficiency, plain and simple. How’s that coming to pass? Well, partially because other players are shooting far better off passes from Giannis this season than past years.

Teammates Shooting off Giannis Passes

Season PASS AST FGM FGA FG% 2FGM 2FGA 2FG% 3FGM 3FGA 3FG%
Season PASS AST FGM FGA FG% 2FGM 2FGA 2FG% 3FGM 3FGA 3FG%
2020-21 41.7 6 7.7 16.7 45.8 3.7 6.9 53.8 3.9 9.8 40.2
2019-20 50.9 5.6 6.9 16.8 40.9 3.6 7.4 49.2 3.3 9.5 34.4
2018-19 54.3 5.9 7.7 18.5 41.8 4 8 50.2 3.7 10.5 35.4

Some of this could be chocked up to simply having more reliable shooters around the floor for Giannis, but I also think that he’s helping set them up in more creative, diverse ways than before. Plus, he’s doing a swell job passing before the defense completely collapses upon him. Sure, there’s still plenty of the driving into impenetrable walls, but passes like this feel like an evolution from what we’ve seen in the past.

In the past, I frequently would watch as Giannis waited until the very last second to try and deliver the ball to his teammate on the perimeter. Oftentimes, that’s how he got into trouble with offensive fouls. These dishes don’t just create an open look, but they look considerably more under control and within the flow of his natural movements. His charges are down this year slightly (0.86/game vs. 1.03 last year) too. Now, it would be disingenuous to say Giannis wasn’t pulling off these passes in past years. For several years, he’s shown an impressive ability to drive downhill and know where his teammates are for the shot. But it’s also sprinkling in some of the stuff beyond muscle memory. Injecting some more randomness into his game will help keep defenses off-kilter as he draws more defenders. He’s started shooting a baseline jumper, which isn’t a stellar shot, but it does open up stuff like this:

Derrick White completely takes his eyes off the strong-side shooter, deadeye Middleton, and Giannis reads that brief bit of space as a chance to secure an easy triple. There’s also some basic point guard skills that point to an advanced understanding of the floor. It’s not immediately clear to me in the clip below whether he indicates for Donte to flip this screen (I think his light hand motion might be that), but regardless, he shows patience and understands that he’ll be able to draw three Spurs defenders and Lopez will know to dance towards the other side of the paint. From there, it’s as simple as Giannis shimmying his way under the hoop and flipping an underhand pass to Lopez for the finish.

His driving has also taken baby steps towards increasing efficiency as a passer.

Giannis Drive Data

Season DRIVES/Game AST AST% FGM FGA FG% PTS PTS% PASS PASS%
Season DRIVES/Game AST AST% FGM FGA FG% PTS PTS% PASS PASS%
2020-21 11.8 1.2 10.4 3.1 4.9 63.3 8.7 73.6 3.8 32.2
2019-20 10.5 0.9 8.4 2.6 4.3 59.8 7.1 67.1 3.5 33.5
2018-19 12.5 1 7.6 3 4.8 63.3 8.9 71.1 4.4 35.1

With more creators on the team, Giannis has been able to refine his work within the margins. Milwaukee’s offense has grown more versatile this season not just because of the addition of a player in the dunker spot, but the growth of Giannis as a roll man and his two teammates, Jrue Holiday and Middleton, each utilizing their playmaking ability too. Under Bud, the Bucks have always been a team that ranks near the bottom in terms of passing. That hasn’t stopped them from becoming world-beating offenses at all, and they’ve consistently ranked near the tops of the league in terms of assist to pass percentage (10% in 2020-21). This year, they’re actually leading the league in that metric, and are slightly better than their 9.2 assist to pass percentage last year. That mark also happens to be the highest in the NBA’s database since they started tracking this stat in 2013-14.

Giannis has been a part of that juiced up number, playing and passing with purpose while his teammates have paid it off more than past years. Milwaukee’s postseason hopes ride primarily on Giannis asserting himself as the alpha in any Playoff series. Developing into a premier passer who can predict open lanes, avoid turnovers and capitalize on collapsing defenses is a central ingredient in that recipe. With the season’s timer running down, the Bucks need him to come out full-baked when the Playoffs hit.


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