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.
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).
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.
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.