Just a few months into his professional career, 19-year-old Milwaukee Bucks rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo has already built a devoted cult following, capturing the imagination of a large swath of the NBA landscape. He's even inspired a hashtag campaign dedicated solely to alerting the basketball community of his entrance to a game—#GreekFreakAlert.
It's a stunning quantity of media attention for a player averaging just 23.7 minutes and 7.0 points per game for the worst team in the NBA. His popularity is driven by obscenely elongated limbs, enormous hands and delightful naivete:
I just taste for the first time a smothie..MAN GOD BLESS AMERICA😊— GiannisAntetokounmpo (@G_ante34) January 20, 2014
But ultimately, it's plays like this that have fans drooling over his potential:
The above highlight does a breathtakingly simple job of illustrating the hypothetical ceiling for Antetokounmpo. Attacking a close out, his serpentine limbs work their way through the tightest of spaces, rolling the ball in from the other side of the rim.
While the blocks, open-court dunks and artful layups fuel hashtags and social media bubbles, they're still coming at irregular intervals, and his contributions in between haven't always been moving the needle for his struggling Bucks.
As KL Chouinard pointed out at Bucksketball, recognizing his youth and inexperience as a counter-balance to the potential is really important in evaluating where Antetokounmpo is right now and where he can go as a player:
Giannis is young, and with youth comes growth—literally. Giannis has only spent a few months in his body at its current length: 6’9″. He grew at least three inches in the past year. That’s the catch-22 for the moment. He has the one-in-a-billion combination of wide-ranging basketball skill in a unthinkably long basketball body, but to get that way he had to develop a sense for the game and then grow and grow and grow. He’s playing catch-up as far as pairing those skills with his body’s current iteration.
The 19-year-old has a potent collection of athletic tools at his disposal, but there are still several tiers of development that separate his current level of performance from NBA superstardom. Figuring out how to consistently use those athletic tools to his benefit at both ends of the floor is the next step on his journey.
Defense is where Giannis has really made his impact felt as a rookie, and it's what ultimately convinced Larry Drew to insert him into the Bucks' starting lineup.
"He plays the right way. He plays with energy, and he can affect the game without scoring. For me, that's huge," Drew told Charles F. Gardner of the Journal Sentinel.
Antetokounmpo is growing into a capable on-ball defender. With quick feet and active hands, he's able to put a lot of pressure on opposing ball-handlers. His length also allows him to apply pressure from a greater distance, making it much more difficult for someone to blow past him.
While he can be tenacious in isolation, his lack of strength leads to real struggles with screens. In the pick-and-roll and defending off the ball, he often gets bumped off course easily. Often, he is able to compensate with length and pure athleticism, shutting down passing lanes or recovering to challenge a shot, but teams can definitely take advantage of him here.
While it's easy to say he needs to get stronger to become a better defender, there's probably a limit to how much he'll be able to close the gap in this area. With a slight, lanky frame, this physical aspect of defense will probably always be a challenge for him to some degree.
When it comes to help-defense, we can really see the destructive potential of his defensive abilities illuminated. His wingspan makes him very disruptive double-teaming in the post.
However, he is susceptible to getting beat by quick off-the-ball cuts. Here, you can see the Spurs take advantage of him twice, getting down the lane for easy baskets.
It's a testament to just how much raw potential he has that he was able to recover and challenge both of the shots. But therein lies the problem.
On defense, particularly off the ball, almost everything Antetokounmpo does is still reactive instead of instinctive. He's frequently a step behind on defense, but his athleticism allows him to cover up for those sort of mistakes so often that it's not always noticeable.
As he builds experience, the goal should be to work towards positioning himself a step ahead of the defense. Learning to anticipate and see plays develop will allow him to swallow up offensive opportunities before they fully come to fruition. This is the kind of thing that, hopefully, comes with good coaching and lots of experience.
Like the defensive side of the court, most of Antetokounmpo's offensive contributions are driven by pure athleticism. He's a demon in transition, and when given the ball with a lane to the basket, something good generally happens for the Bucks.
This makes him especially dangerous as a cutter. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), cuts to the basket make up 10.6 percent of his offensive possessions, and he's scoring a jaw-dropping 1.41 points per possession on those cuts.
However, when asked to do more than finish at the basket, things get a little dicey. As you can see, his jump shot is still a work in progress.
Giannis has made 62.7 percent of his shots at the rim this season but just 24.7 percent from everywhere else on the floor. His shot chart is something of a bloodbath.
Developing a consistent outside shot has to be a primary area of focus for the young wing. This may ultimately be the skill that decides just how good he can be. Becoming a respectable outside shooter isn't something that happens overnight, though, and in the meantime, there are some other areas he can expand and refine his offensive offerings.
Although Antetokounmpo has the potential to grow into a phenomenal ball-handler, his dribble often gets away from him, and he's very turnover prone when asked to create from the perimeter. He's turning the ball over on 20.4 percent of his possessions to this point and 35.0 percent as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports.
It's a robust mix of jump passes, charges and travels, but they all come from the same basic problem. He's simply moving faster than he's thinking, and attacking without a plan. Like we saw on the defensive side, his decisions are usually reactive instead of proactive, and he finds himself forced into difficult situations.
Often, his athleticism can bail him out, leading to a highlight finish. But in the aggregate, it's dragging down his effectiveness considerably. But in this area, he's at least a lot further along than his outside shooting. He covers so much ground with each step that sometimes the slightest opening is all he needs to get to the rim.
One thing that could help him is if the Bucks ran him off more curls near the free-throw line. This would give him the opportunity to catch the ball on the move, closer to the basket and pare down the number of options he has to mentally work his way through.
Even if it's not coming off a screen, letting him catch the ball more at the elbow could simplify things for him a lot more than handling the ball on the perimeter.
The situation Antetokounmpo finds himself in is something of a mixed bag in terms of his development. Playing for a team at the bottom of the standings has afforded him the opportunity to play big minutes and work through mistakes.
But at the same time, the Bucks are a freight train of chaos at both ends of the floor, and the lack of consistency in their system and execution at both ends makes it harder for him to get the kind of repeated, structured experience he needs to really build his awareness.
To this point, Antetokounmpo has never really had to develop this mental side of his game; pure athleticism was enough to overwhelm the competition. His physical gifts are plentiful enough to shine, even in the NBA. But slowing the game down and figuring out exactly how and where to use them for maximum effect is what could make him a complete player.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats