Even the most optimistic probably didn’t see this season coming for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe the most optimistic, but he’s looked so different on the court this season, it’s hard to believe anyone called it. A year ago feels like a hundred years ago. Summer league doesn’t feel so far away though. Never before has summer league, where Giannis was playing point guard with reckless abandon and assertiveness, felt more relevant. He looked confident and occasionally dominant as a giant summer league point guard. He posted up smaller players, he was a terror in transition and he generally seemed to show why his competitors in summer league were playing in summer league. He was an obvious NBA talent and against him many summer league players looked, literally, out of their league.
But it was that competition that gave good reason to pause. Sure, he’s looking great against a bunch of guys who won’t be on rosters next season. But would he be able to do this kind of stuff against real NBA players?
The answer seems to be yes.
“He’s taking what the defense is giving him,” said Coach Jason Kidd about Giannis after Saturday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards. “He’s putting a lot of pressure on the defense, not just scoring the ball, but finding open guys. You can see, since he started starting for us, his game has grown.”
Antetokounmpo is taking a whole lot this season. We all watched him struggle through his first season, especially the early parts of his first season. He was passive. He would pass the ball and hide out in the corner on offense. He didn’t look comfortable or confident. 55% of his shots last season came without a dribble before them. Now? Giannis is creating and taking control of Milwaukee’s offense. Only 37% of his shots have come without a dribble proceeding them.
And when Giannis dribbles, the defense is in trouble, because he hasn’t been settling for mid-range jumpers. According to NBA.com/stats, he’s shooting shots within 10-feet of the hoop with 74% frequency and making them 63% of the time. Last season, those numbers were 56% and 51%. He’s getting better shots, more often and converting them at a higher rate.
Surely some of that is influenced by his frequent usage at the power forward position. One of the best thing about so many of his minutes coming at power forward this season has been a nightly matchup in his favor on the offensive end. He’s played 50% of his minutes at power forward this season after playing just 31% of his minutes there last season.
Each of these little informative nuggets serves to paint a larger picture. That larger picture? Giannis is in the process of entering a new class of NBA player this season.
Before the season started, I contested that the players who went on to be superstars in the NBA either immediately produced at a very high level or made a huge leap in their second season. Among those who made a second season leap were Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett and Lebron James. Each of them was better than Giannis as a rookie, so they didn’t have as wide of a gap to close, but they each still showed significant progress in year two.
Specifically, I used win shares per 48 minutes as my measuring stick. Basically, the trend seemed simple to me: the best players in the NBA were producing at least .1 win share per 48 minutes by year two. Durant went from .04 to .13 and Lebron went from .08 to .20, but all of these guys were at least putting up a tenth of a win each full length game they played.
Last season, Giannis produced just .03 wins per 48 minutes, a fairly low number, even by the standards set forth by previous 19-year-old NBA rookies. But he wasn’t far off Durant’s pace, so I thought there was still some reason to be hopeful. When I wrote the initial piece, I thought we’d need to see some significant steps from Giannis this season if he was really going to be the guy we all want him to be.
We’ve seen significant steps. Like, big, giant, huge, Greek Freak sized steps.
|Giannis||G||MP||WS/48||% Change in WS/48||PER|
The only thing growing quicker than his bones is Giannis’s production. He’s using a ton more possessions this year, turning the ball over less, making more of his shots, getting to the free throw line more and connecting on a higher percentage of those free throw attempts. Add it all up and we’re looking at an incredible surge in his win shares per 48 minutes. Suddenly, not only has Giannis hit my arbitrary (but really not that arbitrary) .1 per 48 marker, he’s looking like a truly incredible second year player.
Among players who were 19 or 20 in their second season and were playing enough minutes to qualify for the minutes per game leaderboard, Giannis’s numbers place him among some impressive company.
Oh hey look, its six of the last seven NBA MVPs in James, Durant and Kobe Bryant. And the best player in the NBA this season, Anthony Davis. And it’s the 2007 Finals MVP, Tony Parker. When you could make a case that Tracy McGrady is one of the two or three weakest players on a list, that’s a hell of a list to be on.
This whole Giannis Antetokounmpo experience is starting to get pretty fun.