Is Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo the Better Franchise Piece Right Now?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 14, 2018

MILWAUKEE, WI - FEBRUARY 25:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles the ball while being guarded by Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans in the fourth quarter at the Bradley Center on February 25, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 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. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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As an NBA general manager somehow plopped into a magical scenario in which you got to choose between Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the pillar of the franchise, you'd probably just thank your lucky stars, flip a coin and marvel at your good fortune.

You couldn't possibly make a bad choice.

But let's say you've got to choose which of these two superstars would headline your team. How do you make that decision?

Step 1: Dig into the Numbers

SAN ANTONIO,TX - FEBRUARY 28 : Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to make an outlet pass after grabbing a rebound between LaMarcus Aldridge #12 and Danny Green #14 of the San Antonio Spurs  at AT&T Center on February 28, 2018  in San Anto
Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Everyone with sense would start with the numbers, and maybe since both players are so ridiculously productive, the one you'd focus on would be simple. Antetokounmpo is 23, nearly two full years younger than Davis, who's 25.

That wouldn't settle things. You'd dig deeper, finding that when considering the expectations and demands of their positions, AD and Giannis had similarly productive seasons in 2017-18. Antetokounmpo averaged 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. Davis posted 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.5 steals.

Upgrade to advanced metrics, and you have Antetokounmpo posting 11.9 win shares and a plus-5.8 box plus-minus last season. Davis was at 13.7 and plus-5.2, respectively. Newsflash: Both were great!

If you went with career numbers, Davis would be the pick. His averages of 23.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.3 steals top Antetokounmpo's averages of 17.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals. But stopping there ignores the age gap, differences in developmental trajectory and, critically, positional designations.

If you shake your Magic Eight Ball based on player improvement, you'll see Giannis' dramatically increased production in nearly every category per season in his short four-year career.  Perpetually increased points (four per season), rebounds (at least 1.1 per season), field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free throw attempts would ostensibly predict a season averaging 31 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.5 steals on 55% effective field goal percentage.  

Remember that Davis, the No. 1 overall pick, arrived a ready-made superstar. His rookie season in 2012-13 (when Antetokounmpo was playing against second-division talent in a Greek league) included averages of 9.5 points, five rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22 minutes per game. Davis is a megastar now, but he was darn good from the jump. Antetokounmpo's arc has been different, which you'd expect from a player who came to the game later and enjoyed nothing remotely resembling Davis' blue-chip American development track.

It took Antetokounmpo until his third NBA season to really pop. Of course, when a player is literally still growing, more gradual progress makes sense.

The numbers are an imperfect way to do this. Both players are phenomenally productive in their current forms, which is why they finished right near the top in last year's MVP voting. Davis was third; Antetokounmpo was sixth.

Do you turn to team success next?

If so, you're not going to get much separation when weighing Davis' two playoff trips (and one series win) against Antetokounmpo's three postseason visits (without a series victory).

You're getting nowhere. Both players are about as productive as anyone could ever want. Both are young enough to keep improving. Both are set to be perennial MVP candidates for the next half-decade, at least. Antetokounmpo has been more durable, averaging just 3.4 missed contests a year. Davis, on average, has missed 13.7 games per season. But how do you weigh that against Davis' career statistical edge? And higher recent MVP finish? And...it just goes on forever.

These two appear equally great, with some room for differentiation depending on what you value most. So maybe shifting the angle of attack will provide clarification. Instead of acknowledging what both have done, you need to see if there are things one can do for your franchise that the other can't.

This is where it starts to tilt toward Giannis.

Step 2: Forget the Numbers

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 26:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates a dunk against the Chicago Bulls during the first half of a game at the Bradley Center on December 26, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Davis is the best version of something we understand: a modern NBA center. Capable of defending the rim, owning the glass, surviving on switches and scoring from all three levels, there's not a more complete big man in the NBA. He's developed some guard skills over the years and shot 34 percent from deep last season. AD is at the absolute apex for the center position, even though he's played 51 percent of his career minutes at the 4.

Antetokounmpo is different. Uncharted territory. An anomaly.

This novelty, coupled with a growth trajectory with no clear end in sight, opens up vast realms of possibility. It also creates a distinction between the two stars. In fact, it may be the critical difference.

Davis, great as he is in his role, and impressive as he's been in expanding his game, will never be able to do the variety of things on a basketball court that seemingly come easily to Antetokounmpo. The converse assertion, that Antetokounmpo could do everything Davis does, may be dispositive.

Everyone loves to cite Davis' point guard play in high school (before he grew), but Antetokounmpo handles the ball like he was born with it attached to his hands. Except...we know that's not true because observers of a 13-year-old Antetokounmpo in Greece remarked the lanky kid couldn't dribble or make a layup.

Yes, that scouting report applied to the man who can now do this:

Also this:

This feeds into the idea that Antetokounmpo is the greater unknown. That there remain untapped reservoirs of talent within him. That what we're seeing from him now is nothing like what we'll see from him in a year. Or two years. Or five.

Framed differently, Davis is a superstar big man who has a few guard skills—certainly more than most. Antetokounmpo is a superstar wing in a big man's body, which may still be growing, by the way. There is no reason to believe Antetokounmpo will struggle as he takes on more frontcourt duties. He's bulked up every year, has the length to contest shots and is already a double-digit rebounder. Davis is never going to be a primary offensive facilitator. He'll never sprint the length of the floor in two dribbles, Eurostep around defenders and complete wrong-footed dunks. He won't easily switch across five positions like Antetokounmpo already can.

Antetokounmpo can become Davis, but Davis cannot become Antetokounmpo.

That's different than saying Giannis will someday do everything Davis can. But if you had to bet on one mastering the skills of the other, you'd have to look at the incomprehensible strides Antetokounmpo has made, the unparalleled versatility, and bet on him.

Maybe it's foolish (and even risky) to so highly value a projection you can't be sure of. But if you've got two established superstars to choose from, why not go with the one who more likely has some as-yet-unknown skill or next-phase evolution ahead of him?

Also, it's a small point but one worth considering in a contest this tight: The NBA is a wing's league. And Antetokounmpo—even if we're largely basing our analysis on the notion that he'll be much more than a wing—is one. Davis just isn't.

In the end, we've seen players like Davis before. Maybe they haven't been as good, but we're at least familiar with the concept. Antetokounmpo is already something different, and if we're to assume (which we should) his exceptional skill expansion and growth trajectory remain unfinished, he could redefine what we expect from a star.

You're fine choosing either one, but Antetokounmpo may be one of precious few players who alter the paradigm of an entire sport. He feels revolutionary in a way Davis doesn't.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is your cornerstone.


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