Jason Kidd was a tall point guard. Last season, the most successful coaching decision Kidd made involved an even taller point guard. Now Kidd is in Milwaukee tinkering with the player who may become the tallest point guard of all: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“With (Brandon) Knight and Giannis, we have additional playmakers and when we have that on the floor, it makes the game easy,” Kidd said to Scott Cooper-Howard of the NBA.com in a Summer League interview. “We’ll see how the roster shakes out, but we’re not afraid to play him at the point.”
Kidd should know a thing or two about being a tall point guard. Throughout his playing career, the 6’4″ Kidd was rarely shorter than the point guard lined up opposite him. And Kidd definitely used his height to his advantage: 12,091 assists, three trips to the NBA Finals, nine appearances on the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams and an advance boarding ticket to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.
Beyond Kidd, tall point guards have left their mark all over NBA history. Magic Johnson is, at the same time, the gold standard for the position and the tallest person (6’9″) to play it regularly. The Bucks won their only title with Oscar Robertson peering over the top (6’5″) of their offense. Being 6-foot-4 helped Hall of Famers Dennis Johnson and Gary Payton become (along with Kidd) two of the best defensive point guards ever.
If the best ever did it, why not aim to copy them?
The Bucks, apparently under the direction of Kidd, have been giving Giannis extensive minutes at the point guard position, which makes sense, because this is summer league and if ever there was a time to let a 6’11” forward play the point guard, this seems like it.
Kidd spoke on the NBA TV broadcast of the Bucks/Suns Summer League game about Giannis’ size and the impact that he may have on a game with the ball in his hands.
Well, he’s literally growing. He woke up one day, he was 6’9”, then he grew two inches. He’s 6’11”. As a young player you’re trying to develop your skill set and learn your body. And when you grow two inches, you kind of have to redo it all over again.
When you see him in the open court, that’s where he’s at his best, because he reminds me of a Scottie Pippen — kind of a Magic guy who can find the open guy — very comfortable with the ball in his hands in the open court.
Despite his height, Antetokounmpo has the handles to maneuver wherever he needs to go on the court, especially in transition. In addition, he is already developing tendencies to pass the ball from up high, which for him is the safest angle of attack. Here is a play from the Summer League game against Utah. (All the plays shown below are from that same game.)
Giannis made a nearly identical play just a few moments later. The full sprint of transition offense makes these passes difficult to defend — players backpedalling at top speed aren’t inclined to have their hands up, and if they do, they still may not reach up to where the ball is.
Antetokounmpo has shown that he will make passes from a lofty angle in a halfcourt set as well. Here his dribble penetration draws the focus of the defense, and Giannis goes high to thread a pass to Chris Wright.
But even if Antetokounmpo passes from a lower angle, he is learning the tricks of misdirecting defenders. Here, he sets up a Jabari Parker dunk purely with his eyes.
As a head coach, tall point guards figured into Kidd’s tactical calculus. In his lone season in Brooklyn, his fortunes changed when his starting center, Brook Lopez, broke his foot and Kidd shuffled his deck of starters to insert the 6’7″ Shaun Livingston at point in his stead. From that point in the season onward, the Nets, who started the season 10-21, went on a 22-9 tear that bumped them back into the East playoff race.
Livingston didn’t man the point entirely by himself for the Nets, but he got his footing shortly after entering the starting lineup when fellow point guard Deron Williams left it for couple of weeks due to injury. At that point, the Nets turned into a turnover-forcing machine with Livingston’s length on the perimeter being a primary catalyst. In one game Livingston snatched a career-high seven steals; in another, he tied a career-high with four blocks. Despite their slow start, the Nets finished the season with the NBA’s third-best percentage of turnovers forced.
On the other end of the floor, here is the most Livingston-like play by Giannis from the loss to the Jazz. Seeing 6’0″ guard Trey Burke lined up to defend him — without much help in the vicinity to aid Burke — Giannis simply backs him up, then attacks the elbow. He elevates for a field goal above Burke, who wasn’t really out of position in any way except for being outmatched vertically.
Livingston made a lot of these plays last season — according to Synergy, he averaged 1.15 points per possession out of the post, the fourth-best mark in the NBA among all players. Antetokounmpo can make them too, but these plays don’t need to be the majority of his arsenal, because Giannis is a better outside shooter and a more explosive athlete than Livingston — a fact that should open up a wide range of offensive moves, including the ability to get all the way to the rim off the dribble.
Below is a play where Antetokounmpo gets into the paint to do some damage. Giannis blows past the first defender, one who was preoccupied with taking away his jump shot. He then beats the help defender by timing perfectly a spin move that split the two defenders while protecting the ball from them.
Here is another one where Giannis gets to the rim. The defender is overplaying his right hand, so Giannis Euro-steps back to his left while switching hands to flip up a lefty finger roll.
“Anything I do out there, handling the ball on the wing, I feel comfortable doing everything,” Giannis said Monday night after the game against the Jazz when asked where he feels most comfortable, position wise. “If a guy bigger than me guarding me, I can go through them. If a little guy is guarding me, I can take them to the paint.”
The shot doesn’t go in, but softly laid layup attempts are never ever bad shots. It’s clear how Antetokounmpo’s size, quickness and feel can cause problems for big men in a pick and roll scenario. More please.
The Giannis-as-point-guard experiment may yield fruit or it may not. He may play with a second point guard in the lineup or he may be able to do it by himself at times. Two things, however, are clear.
First, the experiment is worth trying. If their free agent passivity is any measure of their current plans, the Bucks are not vying for a championship this year. Their owners have clearly stated their desire to build over multiple years. With that timeframe in mind, giving the ball to Giannis for a year only helps his development as a playmaker — regardless of a wins-and-losses perspective.
Second, Kidd is the right person to direct the project. He has more experience, both as a player and a coach, than anyone else whom the Bucks could have chosen to teach a 6’11” point guard.
Let the lessons begin.