MVP Candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo Still Only Scratching at the Surface

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 16, 2018

MILWAUKEE, WI - NOVEMBER 14: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies on November 14, 2018 at the Fiserv Forum 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

With just over 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter of a Nov. 14 contest against the Memphis Grizzlies, Giannis Antetokounmpo coolly took the ball up the court after a MarShon Brooks miss. Four dribbles later, he was calmly jogging in the other direction, ready to play defense yet again after adding another jam to his tally. 

From his reaction—his expression unchanged as he plodded down the hardwood with his elongated gait—you might not assume anything special had just taken place. The whole basketball-watching world might be a bit spoiled by his heroics, as it's able to accept what transpires with nary a second thought. 

But Antetokounmpo's otherworldly talents deserve time for reflection, even if he's strung together feats of skill, size and athleticism so many times that the impossible has become shockingly mundane. 

Dribble 1, and the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak puts the rock on the floor with his left hand, accelerating to create a semi-transition opportunity. Dribble 2, and he pushes the ball slightly beyond where you'd expect, seeking to close the gap between himself and Kyle Anderson by daring the opposing forward into an ill-advised step toward the oncoming juggernaut. Dribble 3, and he's already spun past Anderson to create an unhindered path toward the basket.

Dribble 4, and...well, you can see for yourself:

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Though it's become routine, that type of play isn't supposed to be ordinary. 

Lest we forget, we're talking about a 23-year-old superstar who towers 6'11" over the hardwood and can dribble the length of the court, easily fool a strong defender and explode to the rim with so much power that he deters even the slightest contest. No one wants to become the next victim featured in the ever-growing poster collection compiled by this positionless standout. 

Antetokounmpo has already dunked a league-high 62 times in 2018-19, which leaves him on pace to shatter his 2017-18 mark (161 in 75 appearances). More impressive is the gap between him and the next dunker on the leaderboard who's creating at least 40 percent of his own slams (Antetokounmpo is creating 48.4 percent): Aaron Gordon, with his relatively paltry 20 stuffs. 

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These plays, impossible for the overwhelming majority of humanity, are normal for him, with some even relegated to film sessions rather than highlight reels because he's so damn good at piecing together jaw-dropping sequences. Highlight reels can only last so long.

But this Buck isn't just a House of Highlights machine. His overall performance has bordered on immaculate during Milwaukee's 10-4 start. 

He's averaging 25.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game—numbers no prior player has ever submitted during a qualified campaign. He's shooting 56.0 percent from the field and supplementing his efficiency with eight trips to the stripe per contest. He's helping the Bucks outscore their foes by a whopping 13.2 points per 100 possessions when he plays, and they've faced the NBA's third-toughest opening schedule. According to Basketball Reference's MVP Award Tracker, he's fourth in the race for that honor, trailing only Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard

Denying Antetokounmpo's place near the top of the Association's individual hierarchy would make for a foolish endeavor. And yet it still feels like he's only scratching the surface of his all-around potential. 

MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 27:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Jonathan Isaac #1 of the Orlando Magic during a game at Fiserv Forum on October 27, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Even more petrifying for the rest of the NBA? He seems to grasp that. 

Maybe this, per Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, is just humility from a typically quiet off-court persona. But truth is often wrapped in the shroud of humility: 

"You know me, I'm not going to say I'm not and I'm not going to say I am better than LeBron or K.D. Because I want to feel like I always have somebody to chase. I want to feel like I can always get better. LeBron is one of the greatest guys to ever play. K.D. is one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game. They've been doing it for a long time. That's what I want to do. I want to be in my 14th, 15th year in the league and still be doing what I'm doing today, and even better. ...

"I can feel whatever I feel inside me. I can feel like I'm the best player in the league right now, but at the end of the day, I want to feel like I always can improve. So, if they ask me who is better, me or K.D., they can be better right now. But I want to feel like I always can improve and I want to get there and get to their level."

But at this stage of his development, Antetokounmpo probably won't face a chase that involves LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Nor will it feature Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and the other young standouts ready to grapple for the crown when Father Time affects the aforementioned forwards. 

Given his overflowing arsenal of skills and ability to make an impact in nearly every facet of the game, Antetokounmpo may well end up chasing basketball perfection—a term we're by no means using lightly.

Already coming off a No. 6 finish in 2017-18's MVP voting and poised to climb higher this season, the 23-year-old boasts monumental sway during the proceedings of any given game. But what will happen if he develops a reliable jumper? 

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 14:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks takes a three point shot during the first half of a game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Fiserv Forum on November 14, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  NOTE TO USER: User
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

"Whether it's some point this year or early next year, you're going to see him with a three-point shot," Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst said in early November, per Haynes. "And I think the rest of the league is pretty scared of that."

As Antetokounmpo tortures adversaries with his pinpoint passing, can't-keep-him-from-the-basket driving ability and unreal finishing (career-best 80.2 percent within three feet), he's masking a dirty little secret. Despite his career-best true shooting percentage (60.1) during the season's opening salvo, he's not making anything from beyond the arc. 

Last year, he took 1.9 triples per game and connected at a 30.7 percent clip. This go-around, he's making 7.1 percent of his 2.2 deep tries per contest. No, we're not missing a digit. He's under 10 percent, clanking plenty of open opportunities like the one below: 

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And that's not the only flaw. 

Antetokounmpo's switchable defense has been unassailable, but his long-range woes and turnover troubles have held back his offensive efficacy. He's coughing up the rock 4.8 times per game, and his 18.1 turnover percentage (his worst mark since 2013-14, his rookie year) ranks within the 40 highest figures earned by qualified players. 

Some turnovers come when defenses converge to meet him in the paint and he misses his target on the contested kick-out feed: 

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Others come when he finds himself slightly out of control while he barrels into traffic:

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But turnovers of all varieties are bad news for a cohesive offense, and Antetokounmpo has racked up far too many during the first portion of the 2018-19 season. In fact, he's one of only 20 players with a turnover percentage north of 18 and a three-point percentage in single digits. 

Unlike the others, he's still a high-quality asset to the Bucks. Whereas he's single-handedly earned 1.8 win shares, the other 19 have combined for minus-1.0. And that's the biggest difference between him and everyone else. 

Antetokounmpo has legitimate flaws at this early stage of his development, and the two most glaring issues may be inextricably intertwined. Learn how to shoot, and spaces open on the interior from defenses that can no longer clog up the paint and force him into quick decisions amid tight spaces. 

And yet, he's already overcoming those warts to become one of the NBA's most valuable players. That just may be the best testament of all to his remarkable, unreached ceiling, one that could rise to unfathomably lofty heights.

                 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games on Nov. 15 and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.

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