Picking and rolling with Giannis Antetokounmpo

If Giannis can keep matching up with Cole Aldrich, I suspect big things will happen this season. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
If Giannis can keep matching up with Cole Aldrich, I suspect big things will happen this season. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA today, it’s a pick-and-roll game. The easiest play possible can present many difficulties for a defense. It can lead into a roll man catching a pass on the move that he lays in at the rim or it can lead to a point guard firing a pass across the court to a waiting shooter in the opposite corner. Offensive options out of the pick and roll are as plentiful as what lies ahead when you begin to order a burrito at Qdoba.

But it takes a keen conductor to operate the pick and roll effectively. We picked poor Brandon Knight apart for his decision-making skills all throughout last season. The Bucks new coaching staff mustn’t be totally sold on Knight as the point guard they want to build around either, as rumors have it that they’ll be experimenting with a player who has hardly even played the point guard position.

Oh, and a guy that’s probably the Bucks most important player in terms of development and the future of the entire franchise and all that. But, it’s time to get acclimated to a new position that no one like you in the NBA plays, Giannis Antetokounmpo. I write that not to judge, but because it’s kind of a crazy idea. But the Bucks should be embracing experimenting in this petri dish of a season.

If he really does spend significant minute at the point guard position, he’ll have to make some incredible strides in the pick-and-roll game if he’s going to experience much success. To say I’m worried about Giannis because of his inexperience handling the ball in pick and roll scenarios would be putting it generously. The Bucks are handing a drum set to the kid who likes to tap his pencils in rhythm during class and telling him to have at it and learn as he goes.

Not that they won’t be giving guidance. Having Jason Kidd around alone seems like it would do wonders for anyone who was playing the point guard position. But if reports are true that Gary Payton will be essentially Giannis’s point guardian, that’s two pretty reputable tutors showing him the ropes.

And there’s a lot of rope left to show.

Giannis was hardly ever asked to initiate pick and rolls last season. He was the ball-handler in them just 91 times and in those possessions, he shot 19.3% and averaged just 0.43 points per possession. Those feel like numbers he could have achieved accidentally. But his learning curve was steep last season. I mean, he spent the majority of the early part of last season standing around in corners, looking like he was trying to figure out where he fit in the grand scheme of things.

Maybe that’s not right though. No, it’s not. There was no grand scheme of things for him to think about last season in Milwaukee’s offense, so he couldn’t have been pondering that. He was probably just trying to figure out how the hell he got into the NBA so quickly and waiting for an opportunity to chase someone down for a block.

So he wasn’t much of a threat with the ball in his hands and a teammate standing to the left or right of his defender as a rookie. But he did a much better job in pick and rolls in summer league, probably thanks to the absence of defense and surplus of space in the half court. With Greece in this summer’s World Cup, he was largely back off the ball, roaming the court like a terror, but rarely getting opportunities. So it’s possible he’s already made significant pick and roll ball-handling strides. He has the height to see over people, the willingness to pass the ball and the skills to get into the paint. The tools exist for him to succeed, but the tools are there for Knight as well.

It often seems like there’s something innate in the really good pick and roll point guards. They have such a feel for where their teammates will be and how they can deliver the ball to them and when they should aggressively look for their own shot. Kidd was a master. We’ll see how much of his knowledge is transferrable.

Even if he isn’t the world’s greatest point guard, we do know that Giannis thrives in the open court. We’ve seen that repeatedly, whether it was last season, in summer league or in Europe. Jason Kidd’s offense last season didn’t seem to favor an up-tempo scenario, but as we’ve discussed before, Kidd seemed flexible on how he wanted to play offensively based on the group of players he had. It’s entirely possible he’ll unleash a much faster attack in Milwaukee, one that blitzes the ball on the perimeter, leading to more open court opportunities for Giannis and company.  So he should have one way to produce some offense even if he’s stalling in the half-court, especially early on in the season.

Offensively, he’ll certainly face his challenges if the Bucks can’t force turnovers. Defense poses an entirely new set of problems.

The nice thing about Milwaukee’s roster is that Giannis won’t necessarily have to guard opposing point guards, even if he’s handling primary ball-handling responsibilities. I refer to that as a nice thing, because I’m not sure guarding opposing point guards is a great situation for Giannis. He actually handled pick-and-roll defense fairly well last season. He allowed just 0.7 points per possession, per Synergy Sports, good for 41st in the NBA (though he defended the ball-handler in just 91 pick and roll scenarios according to Synergy) and he was occasionally able to use his length to be disruptive. But his lack of quickness was capable of being exposed.

In this first clip, we see Lance Stephenson, not even one of the quickest players in the NBA, pick up a head of steam after putting a relatively simple crossover move on Giannis. Giannis anticipates a screen that Stephenson never uses, and the decoy gets Lance past Giannis completely. (Shoutout to Dakota Schmidt for the videos.)

Giannis gets blown by another time, on this occasion by Tyreke Evans, who uses his screen then crosses back over and has little trouble getting in the paint past the recovering Antetokounmpo.

Against the much smaller and quicker Patty Mills, Giannis connects with two screeners and can’t recover in time to get anywhere near Mills as he steps back for an open three. Aside from quickness that’s to be expected of a man his size, Giannis presents a very large target for screeners and it seems like at times he struggles to move through them with speed and recover back to his man.

Against Mills, Giannis plays under the screen, and if Jason Kidd’s time in Brooklyn is any indication of the style he’ll prefer this season, Giannis will now be playing over those screens, chasing the ball handler from behind. The result should be more turnovers and broken plays that eat up the shot clock —  but those plays may come at the expense of the offense finding open shooters when the the ball is maneuvered to the offense’s secondary options.

Ultimately, if his learning curve isn’t accelerated, Giannis may not develop into a top-tier player on either end of the pick and roll, even if his future status as an elite player depends on it.

The fate of the Bucks this season isn’t going to be determined by whether O.J. Mayo has a bounce-back season or Ersan Ilyasova rediscovers his three-point shot. NBA success of real consequence isn’t coming to Milwaukee in 2015 or 2016. What matters is how quickly Giannis learns, and he will learn more in the thick of the action than out of it. Even if it’s far from a sure thing, it’s the right place for Giannis to be.

Categories: Season in Preview Form: 2014

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