It’s time to thrive, Giannis Antetokounmpo

He's a man of many skills, but will Giannis Antetokounmpo be a star? (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
He’s a man of many skills, but will Giannis Antetokounmpo be a star? (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a below average 19-year-old NBA player last season. Don’t interpret that as “he was a below average player and a 19-year-old.” Understand that, in terms of 19-year-old NBA players historically, he was below average.

giannis vs. the average 19-year-old nbaer

After a long off-season, this is how I invite back your vitriol.

I just wanted to get that out there. It’s been a while since I’ve written anything of substance, so I thought I’d take a moment to remind everyone that the goal here at Bucksketball remains pragmatism forever and the recent rise in feelgoodery about the Milwaukee Bucks will impact that in no way.

Now, to be fair, it should be noted that Giannis at 19-years-old was a very different life situation than all of his 19-year-old NBA predecessors, like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. Last year was only Antetokounmpo’s fifth year playing basketball, by my best estimation based on internet research. To boot, he was adapting to a new country full of mysterious, exotic iced fruit mixtures without his family by his side for a large part of the year. A year, by the way, which was the first year of his life ever spent abroad. But the NBA waits for no man and shows no sympathy, even for the best stories.

Despite the unforgiving schedule and often uneven play, at the end of the season everyone seemed to agree that, based on the low expectations placed upon him in June of 2013 when the Bucks made him the 15th pick of the NBA draft, he had done just fine. He’d also won tons of fans with his positive attitude, naitivity about the ways of America, eagerness on social media and on court highlights.

But there’s no way to deny that, taken as a whole in terms of basketball performance, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rookie season was not as impressive as the average season 19-year-olds have had in the history of the NBA.

That does not doom Giannis to a life of NBA mediocrity. He can still be the player that dunks and dominates in the dreams of Bucks fans nightly. But if he’s going to be that player, he should probably start being that player sooner rather than later. In general, there are three types of players that have gone from age 19 to age 20 in the NBA. The first group is players who end up not really making an impact. These are your Bismack Biymobos, your Bruno Sundovs, your DaJuan Wagners. They exhibit little staying power initially and cease to get much better.

It feels safe to say Antetokounmpo won’t land in that group, due at the very least to his immense physical tools and early development of basketball skills. Whew.

Then we have guys who end up being role players. Role players are your Al Harringtons, your Martell Websters, your Trevor Arizas. Pretty much, your 2013-14 Washington Wizards.

And finally, there are the fellas who end up a tier or two or three or four above the status of role players. Durant. Lebron. KG. Kobe. Guys who don’t require a first and last name. That’s the special section most Bucks fans probably want Giannis to get into. If this article is any indication, he’s already halfway there, considering how often he’s simply being referred to as Giannis. First and last name test passed. Now he just needs the being a superstar caliber producer part down.

Given how young these players all are when they enter the NBA, it may be natural to suspect it takes a few years for players to really develop into stars. I’d argue that the evidence is pretty clear by year two. Let’s first look at the guys who ended up being stars (or pretty close to stars in the case of Luol Deng and Rashard Lewis).

19-20-Stars

Take note of the fourth and fifth columns and put your glasses on, BECAUSE IT’S ABOUT TO GET NERDY. There’s a statistic that exists referred to as win shares. I don’t know exactly how it’s calculated. From what I understand there’s math involved. But people who write about basketball with intelligence seem to all believe that it’s a good measure of how productive a player is and, believe it or not, just how much he contributes to wins. Between that and PER, I think we have an accurate measure of production in the above screenshot of an Excel table. We also have enough nerdstuff to make sure that no women come near me after reading this.

Anyway, by age 20 (in most of these cases season two), we’re seeing a pretty big leap for these fellas. I’ve honed in on these five because none of them were averaging .1 win shares per 48 minutes at age 19. Almost all of the other stars that entered the league young (Kobe, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and so on) were over or at .1 as rookies. These guys weren’t, but each of them was there, while logging rotation minutes in the following season. At age 20, they were well on the way to becoming All-Stars thanks to huge leaps. Durant is an especially interesting case, considering how modest his production was as a rookie and how big of a leap he made in year two.

So what’s the flip side of this? The flip side is the regular ass dudes.

Regular-Ass-Dudes

Notice the lack of a leap here? We have another set of players who had rotation minutes by season two and didn’t really do much with the extra time on the court. Eventually the likes of Williams and Smith became those .1 per 48 players, but only later on in their careers. Smith did the best of this group, and he was a fringe All-Star who drastically declined in the past two seasons of what should have been his prime.

Now, given Giannis’s background, it’s possible there is no track that can be applied to him. Maybe he’ll need an extra year and then he’ll make the the leap to stardom. Maybe his impressive free throw rate and generally efficiently approached shot chart are strong indicators that even if it doesn’t happen until year four, he’ll be a star. Maybe his potential switch to point guard starts the clock over. Maybe he’ll discover tuna fish sandwiches, the worst sandwich, and it’ll change everything for the worse. There’s a lot that’s still left to be discovered about Giannis and his career could be heading in any direction.

But I’d feel better if it started heading in a pretty special direction this season.

Categories: Season in Preview Form: 2014

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11 Comments

  1. Nice article, Jeremy. I enjoy the cynicism and appreciate it returning my expectations to a more appropriate state. Good to have you back.

  2. I don’t know, it’s hard to consider or compare Giannis as just your average 19 year old NBA player. He’s got size and athleticism that reminds me of literally no one I can honestly remember, Durant maybe, but he just seems so unique. His season was a bit over-blown, but the praise was well deserved for how well he handles himself on and off the court. In my opinion, at least, he’ll develop into a tier just below that or equal to whatever level Bosh is on right now just in terms of value, but could be much more than that if he ever learns to shoot and make pull-ups.

  3. Oh, Jeremy, while I, too, am truly glad to have you back… why, oh, why did you have to start things by slipping in a negative about Tobias Harris… and based on some obscure stat that apparently neither one of us understands?

    We can make a pretty fair assessment of the likes of Marvin Williams and Josh Smith based on their significant years in the league, but Tobias is a lot younger, and last season was really his first full season with decent playing time — and my impression is that he did just fine, and has a lot of promise for the future.

    I’d enthusiastically take Tobias back with the Bucks in a heartbeat, and believe he’s going to be a notably good player in the NBA for years to come. Regardless of that, it’s really too early to tell.

    It is worth remembering that one of the players who you really like took quite a bit of time to develop into a solid NBA player, and he came into the NBA not at age 19 but I think at about 22. Check the archives, but I seem to remember you talking about him as one of your favorite Bucks’ players of all time, very soon after he came to us in the trading away of Tobias.

    Yet not even he was really at his best with the moribund Bucks, and soon left us with apparently little regret, if not outright relief. How can get so excited about this player — J.J. Redick — and yet be so negative about Tobias?

    Please, Jeremy, rethink your errant ways… before, well, this is sports so nothing really bad will happen… but, please, rethink your errant and stubborn ways.

    In any case, I sincerely look forward to future e-conversations with you on your fine site of Bucksketball (as well as with your feisty staff), and perhaps even some occasional agreements along the way.(I’d put a smiley face here, if I knew how to do so.)

    One thing we share: an odd affection for a misfit NBA franchise in the Upper Midwest. We can all hope that the future holds more celebrations about Bucks successes, and less commiserations about their failings.

    All the best to Bucksketball this season, and all of the commenters who come along for the ride.

    • Yeah, guys can develop, but Reddick developed along the same lines as Marvin Williams. Slowly he developed into a capable role player.

      My general point is there isn’t often a slow climb to true stardom. It’s either there, or it isn’t. For Tobias, it isn’t. He won’t be more than maybe a one or two time All-Star. We don’t know about Giannis yet. But I think this year will give a strong indication of where he’s heading.

      Glad to be back at these conversations.

  4. Interesting perspective, Jeremy.

    Whilst I agree that we probably need to see some sort of ‘jump’ in Giannis’s game, remember what you said in the earlier part of the story — he’s only been playing ball for 5 or 6 years.

    And heck, even I started playing ball regularly by the time I was 6 or 7 years old..strong enough to get it up there. No doubt all the players you mentioned — superstars or otherwise — had been playing ball at LEAST 10 years by the time they were 19/20.

    So let’s pull back our expectations juuuuust a bit….? :)

  5. Have to side with the old school scouting when it comes to Giannis — amazing frame elite athlete rare body control —

    We call him the freak, it is really hard to accept comparisons.

    What’s amazing is that Giannis, for all his physical gifts, appears to possess the attitude and drive (inherent from his background) to be great, and a familiarity with the Euro game which does produce excellence.

    And here’s the part where I say he has the ‘it’ factor. I definitely digress.

    Hopefully it continues to be an interesting thing to watch and that he stays a Buck when he gets there.