Let’s talk about this “Giannis playing every position” thing

The other day, an article appeared on RealGM–as such things are wont to do–in which coach Jason Kidd intimated that Giannis Antetokounmpo would see time at every position on the court this season. Specifically:

“He’s 20 years old and he’s going to play every position for us,” Jason Kidd said. “…He never complains. He just goes out there and plays.

This isn’t exactly a new sentiment; it’s come up every offseason that the Greek Freak has spent in Milwaukee. He’s tall, athletic, reasonably coordinated handling the basketball; wouldn’t it be so cool if Giannis could just play every position? Furthermore, just about every article, preview, or discussion about the Bucks has brought up the team’s bevy of long-limbed amorphous athletes and put forth the much longed-after idea of positionless basketball, this futuristic new wave that is supposed to start revolutionizing the league… soon? Regardless, Point Giannis would be the vanguard of that movement and cement his place as everyone’s favorite NBA folk hero, assuming he hasn’t already secured that mantle.

He played some point guard last year during summer league–and even in the preseason. But overall, the experiment seemed to be a non-starter. Once the regular season began, according to the play-by-play positional breakdown at the indispensable Basketball-Reference, Giannis spent exactly 0% of his time as the point guard.

Yet here we are again, discussing the merits of lining him up as the tallest dang floor general you ever did see, the most athletic dang center you ever did meet, and everything in between. But is that really what we want? More importantly, is that really what’s best for his development? Let’s sort out a couple of issues first:

What do we mean when we talk about Giannis possibly playing at every position?

There are two interpretations here: one, that Giannis will literally start at the point guard position or the shooting guard position or whichever position and take on all the responsibilities of that position. For example, Shooting Guard Giannis would line up against the opponent’s shooting guard (or equivalent) on defense, hang out on the wing, and (presumably) provide spacing alongside a “traditional” point, wing, and forward combo.

This particular interpretation would leave a lot of people drooling about the mismatches generated by the kind of “supersize” lineup that would be helmed by Guard Giannis. It’s exciting to think about a 6’11” floor general who can whip passes clear over his defender and take advantage of the unique perspective his height would provide. Heck, if he proves that he’s progressed in his shooting, he could provide some of the spacing that has been a significant concern of many leading into this season.

The other interpretation is that he’ll play in one of his typical forward slots, but take on a larger chunk of the playmaking role of the team, including possibly bringing the ball up the court in some situations or serving as a primary ballhandler on occasion. This is the less dramatic of the interpretations, as it’s basically a further extension of the role he’s been developing into during his first two years in the league. While his early years were spent learning the NBA game and serving as a complementary piece, he made strides in his second year in usage (19.5% versus 15% in year 1). He was also less reliant on teammates to set him up (51% of 2-point shots assisted versus 62% in year 1).

Of the two, this is also the far more likely interpretation due to its fit into Giannis’ existing progression as a player. Again, while it would be interesting to see Giannis out there in full-on showrunner mode, it seems like one heck of a stretch given the conservative play we were seeing out of him less than two years ago and the emphasis of his offseason work.

What are the issues with trying Giannis out everywhere?

The prevailing feeling seems to be that there’s no danger to experimentation. Give him 5 minutes a game as the lead guard! Shift him around the lineup! Just see what happens! I think it’s fair to say that the general impression of Giannis is as a still-moldable piece of basketball potential with only a roughly defined shape and plenty of room to be stretched and formed into a complete player. The idea that he’s still only 20 years old fills many minds with dreams of potential and growth (both metaphorical and, maybe, still physical).

However, that raw state also represents the danger in trying to make Giannis into a do-everything kind of player. From what we can infer, his primary focus this offseason was in developing a useful jump shot and expanding his offensive repertoire; one of the things we haven’t observed to this point in his offseason exploits is any growing affinity toward facilitation or any significant amount of ballhandling. Therefore, it seems… ambitious for him to devote attention to learning yet another role in the offense, especially in the process of another NBA season.

Matt Moore of CBS Sports outlined one of the greatest concerns with this idea in a few tweets after the RealGM article was published:

I think it’s still somewhat up for debate if Giannis possesses the skills to play at a guard position. But it does make some amount of sense to focus him on the positions that he has already shown some aptitude for–it’s easy to see where his advantages lie at either forward or the center spot. But how valuable is Giannis the unknown quantity facilitator or Giannis the questionably-skilled floor spacer?

Here’s the thing. We’ve already seen signs that Giannis is a great athlete, ballhandler, and playmaker. For the forward positions. Moving him to that primary playmaking and facilitating role places him in positions where he’s competing against players who are similarly–and likely more–advanced in the relevant skills. Is it better for the overall player to bring his “guard skills” up to competence or emphasize the aspects of the game in which he can excel?

We’ve all heard the phrase “jack of all trades” already, but the second half of that old axiom seems particularly relevant to the caution surrounding Giannis right now: “Jack of all trades, master of none”. It would be fascinating to see him develop into an above-average player at every position on the court, but there’s also a reason that hasn’t happened in any major capacity–it’s hard! Most NBA players spend their entire careers developing into useful contributors in one or two roles; it would take a truly transcendent player to become fluent in all aspects of the game and integrate them at that NBA level. Basically, it makes more sense to let Giannis get comfortable and proficient in the skills that he has been developing (shooting) at the positions he’s already playing before adding many more learning objectives or responsibilities to his workload.

The fact that he’s only 20 is both a blessing and a curse in this case. It’s great fun to talk about limitless potential and bolster fan spirits with talk of just waiting what he’ll do next year, but there isn’t such a thing, is there? “Limitless potential” is a fun talking point or draft profile, but in reality most players will identify and hone their roles early on. What it really comes down to is this – would you rather have a player that is exceptional in his few designated roles, or one that is, at best, alright at a wide range of things?

Giannis ballhandler
Giannis, handling the ball like he’s a guard or something. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

 

The bottom line is thus: is the team putting its players in the best position to succeed? If the idea of playing Giannis at all five positions is to gain a better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses and clarify his role, then there would seem to be no harm as well as no foul. However, if this is a precursor to making him the central focus of the Bucks’ offense or moving him into a primary ballhandling role, the team runs the risk of pushing their young star’s development in a direction that it might not be best suited while disrupting his establishment of a steady role or the proper mindset to take full advantage of his growing skill set.

I don’t think the Bucks are interested in taking that latter approach; as with their approach to team-building and the rehabilitation of Jabari Parker, the team seems more than willing to let its players develop at their own paces and build out of the results of that process. But at the end of the day, I do think it’s time to put the “Giannis as everything” conversation to bed. He’s flashed skills that form the outline of a dynamic frontcourt playmaker and someone who can be a consistent matchup nightmare for opposing big men. It’s interesting to think and/or talk about his potential as a do-everything player, but that’s seeming more and more unlikely as we see Giannis the player emerge.He might fit a role on the team in which he serves as a playmaker in some capacity; it’s likely that we’ll see him bringing the ball up the court in some situations, especially when the team wants to run in transition.

But when we talk about Giannis the do-everything player, it’s important to consider the actual process of player development and the end goal of assembling the best team possible while highlighting the best possible version of its players. If Giannis has the skills to expand his game, they will make themselves apparent in the course of playing. But if the team tries to force those skills upon him, it may come at the expense of his further development in the areas that already make him special and hold the greatest amount of his potential. In keeping with the overall theme of this team’s construction, Giannis’ individual development should be approached with an emphasis on the emerging player, not the hopeful dream of what he could be.

Categories: Stats and Stuff,The Off Season

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3 Comments

  1. Did the “he will play all 5 positions” thing stunt the growth of Magic Johnson, Kevin Durant, Scottie Pippen or Lebron James? The idea of “limitless potential” may be hyperbolic, but the Giannis optomists (Giaptomists) out there definitely expect his career to put him in the same sentence as those guys if all breaks right. So basically Matt Moore, and yourself are stating that he won’t be as good as people think, so Kidd should just give up on that crazy notion and define a role for him and let that be the end of it. That’s a fine opinion, but for those on the other side who think Giannis can develop into a positionless assasin able of being the best player on the court at every damn thing, (i.e. limitless ability) well, you can see why they would tell you that your’e being a downer. I wouldn’t bring this topic up at parties.

      • Yeah, I had the same thought, so I took some index cards outlining this article to a party to see how it played. Needless to say, it was a non-starter. Just a heads up.