22-Year-Old Giannis Antetokounmpo Looks a Lot Like a Young LeBron James

Alex RaskinFeatured Columnist IFebruary 27, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks fight for the position during the game on November 19, 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Compared to LeBron James' career arc, Giannis Antetokounmpo's ascent to NBA stardom has been a steep one.

In four years of exponential growth, the Milwaukee Bucks All-Star has risen from a second-division player in Greece to a somewhat awkward NBA rookie who averaged just 6.8 points a game to one of basketball's premier all-around talents and perhaps the league's greatest anomaly.

At 6'8", James' all-around game was a revelation. But Antetokounmpo is 6'11" (officially; he might be an inch or two taller). He's crossing up guards, posting up centers and putting on his own personal dunk contest in the All-Star Game, all with similar ease.

"Giannis is 6'11", 7 feet," said NBA TV analyst and former All-Star Steve Smith. "I don't know if you'd call him a point forward. He's kind of a point hybrid—something we really haven't seen."

But as uniquely talented as Antetokounmpo is at 22, there is one comparable player, and he'll be on the opposite sideline Monday night when the Bucks visit the Cleveland Cavaliers.

At 22, James had been a national star since before his senior year of high school. He was on his way to guiding a 50-32 Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals, where they would be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

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James "impacted winning right away," ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy told Bleacher Report; Antetokounmpo's resume is certainly lacking in that department. Through his lone career playoff series—a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Bulls in 2015—Antetokounmpo was relatively quiet, averaging 11.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and just 2.7 assists a game.

That's a far cry from his current stat line: 23.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals a game.

While the Bucks will need to improve to make the playoffs, a deeper look at Antetokounmpo's all-around impact evokes memories of 2006-07, when a 22-year-old James powered the Cavaliers with 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.6 steals a game.

Going by Basketball Reference's box plus/minus—a metric that estimates the points a player contributes above a league-average player on an average NBA team, per 100 possessions—Antetokounmpo's current plus-8.5 rating ranks fourth among players 22 and under since 1973.

In fact, his rating stood at plus-10.5 as recently as Jan. 5, which would have beaten James' plus-9.3 mark in 2005-06 for the top spot overall. (James' plus-12.99 in 2008-09 ranks as the greatest season in NBA history in terms of box plus/minus, although triple-double machine Russell Westbrook is currently posting a remarkable 14.1.)

But a better metric might be Player Impact Estimate (PIE); it measures a player's impact in each individual game. As described on NBA.com, "PIE shows what percentage of game events did that player or team achieve," specifically looking at traditional stats such as points, rebounds, turnovers, etc. It also incorporates defensebecause if a player were to miss a shot, the five opposing players on the floor would all see their PIE rating improve.

Most importantly, this metric has a strong correlation to winning. Even though the Bucks have done so less than the first-place Cavaliers this season, Antetokounmpo has usually been the primary reason when they're victorious.

In this case, James and Antetokounmpo are tied for seventh at 18.0 among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game this season. (Westbrook leads qualifying players at an astounding 22.3.) For comparison, James posted a similarly impressive 18.1 for the Cavs in 2006-07.

"Antetokounmpo, on his own merits, has some traits that hopefully will lead to winning," Van Gundy said. "To me, it's his size, length, and passing and the ability to impact the game defensively as well."

Therein lies Antetokounmpo's greatest current asset.

Opposing shooters have made just 42.7 percent of their field-goal attempts against his pterodactyl-like frame, according to NBA.com's defensive statistics, which is nearly congruent with James' mark of 42.0 percent. (For comparison, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard has yielded 43.8 percent shooting this season.)

"I don't think you can say he's at the level of Leonard yet," Van Gundy said. "But Leonard is older, more experienced and playing with a better team. I give Giannis a lot of credit. Most younger players are not nearly as advanced defensively as he is. And obviously he has innate advantages with the length, the size, and the lateral quickness. He lacks nothing. He should have a goal for himself to be Defensive Player of the Year."

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 20:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers works against Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game at BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 20, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
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Aside from winning three NBA titles and four MVP awards, Antetokounmpo's best chance at emulating James is to address his weaknesses in the same way James has.

Most significantly, James improved his three-point accuracy from 31.9 percent in 2006-07 to as high as 40.6 percent in 2012-13, when Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were drawing away defensive attention in Miami. This season, he's made 38.6 percent of his three-point attempts.

Part of that comes from practice, but great players also show an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.

"James came in not a great shooter from range," Van Gundy said. "He's gotten better, obviously, at deciding what shots are his best shots. Antetokounmpo is trending toward being a very efficient player as well."

Antetokounmpo has a 28.2 percent clip from outside the arc this year, and he's happier driving inside and looking for kick-out options like Khris Middleton and, prior to his second season-ending ACL injury, forward Jabari Parker.

"I think the [Bucks are] just trying to play off of him right now," Smith said. "Everything [for Antetokounmpo] is at the rim, and it's a testament to him that he's still averaging over 23 points just getting to the rim. … But if he can add that [outside shot], then you're talking about unstoppable."

The major dissimilarity between this iteration of Antetokounmpo and the 22-year-old James that willed the Cavs to the NBA Finals? Well, it can hardly be blamed on the Greek native.

Even as a young adult, according to former teammate Ira Newble, James commanded the respect of his veteran teammates.

He wasn't a vocal leader at the time, Newble explained, but he did have a knack for rising to the occasion, and it engendered the growing trust within the Cavaliers huddle.

"If we keep the game close, then in the fourth quarter, LeBron is gonna take over," Newble said of James, specifically referencing his 48-point performance against the Detroit Pistons during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. James scored 29 of Cleveland's final 30 points, including the game-winner.

"That was a solidifying moment against one of the best defensive teams in basketball that year," Newble said. "It definitely takes those types of games, where you have the ability to take over, and guys start to trust in you."

"We all knew LeBron James was a phenomenal player, but it just seemed like it was a moment where he was the leader," agreed Smith.

Antetokounmpo did deliver a buzzer-beater to beat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 4, but like most players, he can't compete with James' miracle against the Pistons.

What he can do, provided talented teammates like Middleton and Parker stay healthy in future seasons, is turn the Bucks into a contender. While it's tempting to say James has had better teammatesand that was certainly the case during his time in Miamithe 2006-07 Cavaliers were a group of NBA journeymen such as Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden.

"The team, on paper, that the Cavs had that played the San Antonio Spurs wasn't a team, if you took LeBron off that team, that you would think could go far," Smith said. "And I think that's the next step for Giannis. It doesn't have to be leadership, but I think the great players are measured by winning."

To Van Gundy, that remains a possibility given the talent of the injured Parker. But if the Bucks are going to become a contender, it will have to be Antetokounmpo who serves as the catalyst.

"He and Jabari Parker, I thought, were forming the best forward combination in the league," Van Gundy said. "Obviously [San Antonio's Kawhi] Leonard and [LaMarcus] Aldridge and [Golden State's Kevin] Durant and [Draymond] Green, but these two guys are on the path to being an exceptional pairing.

"For them to get into the playoffs and put a scare into a first-round opponent," Van Gundy said of the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, "I think it's going to be driven by his greatness."

    

Alex Raskin is a freelance writer who contributes to the Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @alexraskinNYC.