The Immense, Incalculable Potential of Giannis Antetokounmpo

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The Immense, Incalculable Potential of Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Half the basketball-watching world might not know how to pronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo's name quite yet. Fewer still can spell it without looking it up on one of the Internet's various search engines. 

But how many have taken time to watch the Greek small forward ply his trade for the Milwaukee Bucks during his rookie season? 

I can't blame you if you haven't. While he's certainly worth investigating, Milwaukee has been the worst team in the Association, lacking premier talent without playing an entertaining brand of basketball.

However, that's no longer an excuse. 

Antetokounmpo has a ridiculous amount of potential, which is the reason he was drafted just outside the lottery without ever playing truly high-level basketball. The 19-year-old's game was supposed to take years to develop, and he wasn't going to be much of a contributor until 2015-16 or so. 

Whoops. So much for that. 

If you've been watching him all along, good for you. Keep doing so, and invest time so that you can say you were on the Antetokounmpo bandwagon before everyone else. 

If you haven't seen him yet, remedy that immediately. Here's a handy-dandy link to Milwaukee's schedule just to help you out. 

 

The Physical Tools

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

This is where it all starts for Antetokounmpo. No discussion about his potential can truly begin before his physical tools have been discussed, as he's an imposing figure who's only getting bigger. 

DraftExpress.com had him listed at 6'9", 196 pounds heading into the 2014 NBA draft, and his wingspan was reportedly 7'3". 

He's bigger now, according to both that photo and Gery Woelfel of the Journal Times

Not only is Antetokounmpo's game growing, so is his body. When the Bucks drafted him in June, he was 6-9. Now, just more than five months later, he has added more than an inch to his lanky frame.

'I am now 6-10 and one quarter,' Antetokounmpo said smiling.

He then paused before adding, 'I still have 3½ years to grow.'

Indeed, doctors have informed Antetokounmpo and Bucks officials that the former's growth plate is still open. In all likelihood, he'll become a 7-footer.

Well, that doesn't sound very fair. Then again, these don't look very fair: 

I'm not even sure what you call those. 

Hands? Finger extensions? Baseball gloves shaped like hands? Extraterrestrial digits? Arms attached to a palm?

Whatever you decide to refer to them as, those are Antetokounmpo's hands, and they're just part of the reason he's earned "The Greek Freak" as his moniker of choice. The lankiness is what allows him to make plays like this, seemingly without exerting even a tiny bit of effort: 

Seriously, doesn't it look like he's playing at half speed? He barely has to jump because he can just use his elastic arms to swat away Dwight Howard's attempt out of the post. 

Oh, but he can jump. 

Antetokounmpo is an insane athlete, one who can elevate with ease before recording some sort of highlight. Physical tools are only good if you can do something with them, and The Greek Freak certainly can, as you can see below: 

Athleticism is what turns Shawn Bradley into David Robinson—well, athleticism and a whole bunch of other skills, but you get my deliberately hyperbolic point. Tall players with long arms are a dime a dozen, but players who are actually capable of using their physical tools are in an entirely different category. 

Going into the 2013-14 season, we knew that the Greek forward was a physical specimen. We might not have been sure that he'd grow into a 7-footer, but his lankiness was well-documented, as were his gigantic hands. 

However, his first season in the NBA has changed perception, and it hasn't exactly happened in slow fashion. That's where the rest of the skills come in. 

 

Offensive Potential

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

What type of offensive play has Antetokounmpo failed to showcase at this stage of his remarkably young basketball career? 

Thus far, the 19-year-old is averaging 6.9 points and 1.7 assists per game while pulling down an offensive rebound each contest. He's shooting 42.7 percent from the floor and 31.4 percent beyond the arc, neither of which is particularly terrible for such a young player who's still learning the game. 

That said, this isn't about what Antetokounmpo has done, but rather what he can do. The flashes of potential he's shown are all that matter, because they indicate that he could one day put everything together into one package brimming over with superstardom. 

Look at him take his defender off the bounce here: 

The Greek Freak may have missed the dunk, but he drew contact and ended up at the charity stripe. And it's not even the result of the play we should be paying attention to, because it's ridiculously impressive that such a raw player can drive to the hoop like that and play under control. 

There's a reason that Antetokounmpo was a part of the Skills Challenge during All-Star weekend, and he didn't look even remotely out of place while surrounded by true guards. 

You can actually glean a lot from that brief display of talent. 

The Milwaukee forward still has some areas to improve on, sure. His passing skills are a work in progress, and his jumper is coming along slowly. That said, his form looked much more controlled than normal, as his arms weren't flailing around and his elbow was tucked in nicely. 

It's the dribbling that was impressive. 

Whether in a skills challenge or driving down the court in a game, he looks comfortable with the ball in his hands. 

And it gets more impressive. 

Those types of highlights—ones that only a handful of players could produce—come along every once in a while and remind us that while Antetokounmpo is currently prone to disappearing on offense, he has quite a bit of star potential. 

 

Cerebral Play

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

You can't teach intuition. 

Antetokounmpo might not have much high-level basketball experience, but he already displays an innate ability to understand positioning on both ends of the court. It's allowed him to become a tremendous cutter, as Deadspin's Tom Ley broke down during mid-January: 

And we haven't even gotten to what right now is Giannis's most deadly skill: his cutting. He has shown a preternatural ability for knowing exactly when to cut toward the basket and a knack for finishing at the rim. According to Synergy Sports, he's attempted 25 shots on cuts to the rim this season, converting 19 of them. His soft hands make him a great target for any guard looking for a cutter, and his size makes it almost impossible for any defender to stop him once he gets into the lane.

What you are seeing in those clips is the same thing you see in that absurd block against Kevin Durant: instinct. Despite being so young and inexperienced, Giannis plays like someone who just knows how to play basketball. This is what David Thorpe was talking about when he mentioned the 'hunters' spirit.' Giannis doesn't have to think; he just goes, quickly, to where he needs to be, and he wrecks s*** when he gets there.

Let's go into those cutting skills in a bit more detail, first by introducing you to one of the more dangerous plays the Bucks can possibly use via video:

It's not easy to fake out the Chicago Bulls defensively and then squeeze past every man on the court, but that's exactly what Antetokounmpo does by selling a fake and then cutting in the opposite direction.

However, fast-forward to 3:19 in the same video.

You'll notice Antetokounmpo lurking in the bottom-left portion of the screen, just waiting for the right opportunity to cut. He scores here on a putback dunk, but more often than not, he waits until there's a cutting opportunity, then takes advantage of the situation by receiving a pass and finishing the play.

Such a young player shouldn't be this smart. But Antetokounmpo is.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), The Greek Freak has now run cuts to the hoop 40 times, and he's scoring 1.33 points per possession on those plays. Only 39 players in the NBA are scoring more efficiently in that situation, and Antetokounmpo has actually managed to score 70 percent of the time. 

Seventy percent. 

LeBron James, for example, is scoring on 66.7 percent of his cuts. 

Just imagine what Antetokounmpo is going to do off the ball when he's not a rookie. Experience only helps in this area. 

Also kind of fitting into this same category is the love of the game. Some players—cough Michael Jordan cough—are so passionate about basketball that they need certain clauses written into their contracts. Others—cough Andrew Bynum cough—reportedly don't even like playing the sport. 

Antetokounmpo sure seems to fit into the former category. 

Not only does he play with unrelenting passion, but he's also so competitive that he cares about everything. The Greek Freak was visibly disappointed after he and DeMar DeRozan were eliminated from the Skills Competition, and that's a contest that some players coast through because they seem to think they're too cool to try hard. 

These are things you can't teach, and they all bode well for Antetokounmpo's long-term development. 

 

Defensive Talent

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The Milwaukee rookie has produced quite a few memorable moments during the 2013-14 season, but the one that stands out the most was a matchup he actually lost. 

During a mid-December loss to the New York Knicks, the 19-year-old small forward stepped into the starting lineup for the first time in his young career. His opponent? Carmelo Anthony. 

No big deal, right? Just one of the toughest matchups in the NBA. 

'Melo ended up scoring 29 points in the game, but he also needed 29 shots from the field to do so. Antetokounmpo hounded him throughout the night, and he showed absolutely no fear when he was put in an individual situation. 

After the game, he confirmed the lack of fear with Matt Velazquez of the Journal Sentinel

The reason was Carmelo. I respect him. He's one of the best players, but he can't come out and start bullying my teammates and me, like talking to me all the time. I tried to not react and you have to respect him. If he does it all night you can't focus on your game so you have to respond and tell him something to stop. When I go out there I don't care who you are, for me it's just a jersey.

Sometimes you've got to respond because you can't be like a chicken.

Remember this play? 

It's a famous one at this point, simply because Andrea Bargnani took one of the more boneheaded attempts of the season. But rewind and look carefully. 

You'll notice Antetokounmpo sticking right with Anthony during the crucial first shot of the sequence, and that was a microcosm of the entire game. In fact, the rookie claims that none of 'Melo's 29 points came against him.

But if you think he only plays non-glamorous defense, don't worry, because he produces some highlights as well.  

You can watch every game for the rest of the season, and you'll only see a handful of plays that are more impressive than that one. 

Antetokounmpo gets caught up in a screen from Steven Adams, and he still manages to recover, elevate and reach the ball at the apex of its path toward the hoop. It's an insane feat of timing, hustle and athleticism. 

Of course, there have been struggles. There always are for rookies, especially for international prospects who haven't even been alive for two decades. 

What's Antetokounmpo's ceiling?

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The Greek forward has been particularly susceptible to cutting players and has difficulty figuring out when to leave his man and play help defense, but he's still made quite the impact during his first season in the States. 

Now just imagine how much more he'll make down the road. 

Ridiculous athletic tools, great instincts, a love for the game, flashes of offensive prowess in multiple areas and a great set of defensive assets? 

Yes please. The Bucks are lucky to have such a talent on the roster and under a rookie-scale deal for the next few seasons. 

There's a reason we still haven't figured out what his true ceiling is. 

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