Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Becoming the NBA's Worst Nightmare

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2019

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - DECEMBER 19:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots over Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of a game at Fiserv Forum on December 19, 2019 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

For the last three-plus seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been one of the most dominant forces in basketball. The only glaring weakness was his outside shooting.

From 2016-17 through 2018-19, he shot 27.5 percent on 2.3 three-point attempts per game. If you wanted to stop him, you had to wall off the paint. It took a team effort, but it was possible to at least slow him down.

What Giannis showed in the Milwaukee Bucks' 111-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday was that he may have figured out the one thing holding him back.

In just 32 minutes, Giannis went for 34 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block. Most importantly, he hit a single-game career-high five threes. And he only needed eight attempts to do so. The performance brought his three-point percentage up to 33.8. That's still on the wrong side of average, but it's enough to force defenses to pay attention out there.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Giannis drilled a career-high 5 3PTs in a statement win over the Lakers 👌🔥 https://t.co/ZWCeyqRFBo

There doesn't appear to be any dramatic change in Giannis' shot mechanics (though the team has been working on them). The release doesn't look much quicker. The ball still starts pretty low on plenty of the attempts. But, as you can see above, he's hoisting those things with confidence. In the first half, he even drilled one after having an air ball on the previous possession.

Reggie Miller, who was on color commentary for the game and is second in NBA history in made threes, said Giannis has that "shooter's mentality." Confidence that the next one is going in is the product of the work Giannis has applied to developing this skill.

"The Bucks call their personalized exercises 'vitamins' because they 'take them daily,'" ESPN's Malika Andrews reported last season. "Antetokounmpo's vitamins include a heavy dosage of shooting."

Giannis also has a work ethic motivated by a desire to dominate. Personalized shooting drills are nice, but it's his mentality that will weaponize everything he's working on.

"When you see him work out, he's a freak of nature," Kevin Garnett said of Giannis on the Bill Simmons Podcast. "... His first superpower is to make you quit. He wants to dominate you to the point where he wants to step on you. That's his mentality. That's an old-school mentality."

It's not hard to see that in everything else Giannis already brings to games.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Antetokounmpo has averaged 12.0 rebounds per 75 possessions, 26th among qualified players. That's a skill born of relentlessness. Positioning is key. Size and athleticism obviously help. But plenty of rebounds simply come down to how bad a player wants it.

His assists feel like the force-of-will variety, as well. Giannis' passing doesn't have the flair of Nikola Jokic's. He doesn't have the pinpoint accuracy of LeBron James. But the amount of attention he commands once he hits the paint is massive. And often, with multiple defenders seemingly draped all over him, he's able to kick it to one of his shooters. Over the same span noted above, Giannis is less than half a dime per 75 possessions shy of the top 50 in that category.

Then, there's the defense. The list of players with at least 10,000 minutes who match or exceed Giannis' defensive rebounding percentage, block percentage and steal percentage reads like a who's-who of defensive juggernauts: Marcus Camby, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Jusuf Nurkic, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Ben Wallace.

There's plenty of skill to defense. Intelligence and timing are critical, too. But that mentality described by KG can't be overlooked. Giannis brings it on that end, as well.

Finally, there's the dunking. He leads the league this season. And honestly, as long as he can do that as often as he does, the shooting may not be as big a deal as some make it out to be. For all the talk of the three-point revolution, teams still know that the layup is a more valuable shot. And Giannis is getting nearly four a game, over half of which are unassisted.

But my goodness, if this uptick in shooting is real?

"This now unlocks space for his teammates," shooting coach Ben Sullivan said, per Andrews. "It makes the whole team harder to guard when he doesn't have the ball. Before he took the job, [Mike Budenholzer] analyzed the team—the strengths and weaknesses of everyone—and he's like, 'Giannis is one of the best players in the league. How do we help Giannis be even better?'"

Shooting was the obvious target.

Beyond the space it opens up when Giannis is off the ball, if he's shooting well enough to force defenders to close out hard on his catches, his already unstoppable drives will somehow be...more unstoppable?

When a defender is running full speed to the perimeter, it's tough to put on the brakes, flip the hips and get in front of a driver who's ready to attack off the catch or a pump fake.

Giannis is already dunking at will and creating loads of open looks for teammates. Now, try to imagine the Bucks with him getting an extra half-second or so on some of these takes.

It already feels like Giannis is the leader in the clubhouse for MVP. An average or close-to-average three-point shot might lock it up.

And considering that he just turned 25 this month, it might lock in his spot in the MVP conversation for the foreseeable future. Certainly, James Harden has a few more years to challenge Giannis' individual dominance. Perhaps AD can join the party when he gets the baton from LeBron. Giannis vs. Luka Doncic might be the most exciting individual matchup going forward. But right now, if you're handicapping any of those head-to-heads, a sweet-shooting Giannis is tough to pick against.

This continued ascent doesn't just impact individual matchups, either. The Philadelphia 76ers loaded up on size in anticipation of Giannis sometimes entering "attack first, last and always" mode. If he can counter with some jumpers, can Philly still challenge for a spot in the Finals? Can anyone? Maybe the ultra-switchy, position-less Boston Celtics stand a chance, but they don't have quite as much size inside to deter Giannis' traditional attack.

The Lakers may still be the best bet. They were on the last matchup of a five-game road trip on Thursday. AD is banged up. When right, they have switchy defenders in LeBron and Danny Green as well as size with Davis and Dwight Howard. This one may ultimately be a blip on L.A.'s radar.

It might also have been another step toward the throne for Giannis. After he hit his fifth three of the night, the 2019 MVP mimicked putting on a crown:

Jeff Eisenband @JeffEisenband

Giannis beating LeBron and putting on a mock crown. Ohhhhh boy. https://t.co/t9EWwOd5hd

Is Giannis already The King? We can wait till he wins at least one title before we go there, but the celebration is an indication that this is on his mind. Giannis wants to be the best. And taking that title from LeBron, arguably the best ever, would put him in rarified air all-time.

He's already 25th in NBA history in career box plus/minus, with plenty of prime years left to climb that leaderboard. Adding some titles to that resume is the next step in inching toward the GOAT conversation.

It could also quell some fears that may brewing over Giannis' future.

Back in October, he denied saying the following quote a Harvard Business School case study attributed to him: "If we're underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult."

Even aggressive denials of such reports aren't going to quiet rumors about Giannis, who can become a free agent after the 2020-21 season, over the next couple of years. This is just what happens in the NBA now. If a superstar has yet to win a title in a small market, speculation about free agency or possible trade demands will inevitably pop up. 

Nothing will squash those rumors as effectively as Antetokounmpo leading—and shooting—his team to an NBA championship.

Former GM of Atlanta Hawks turned analyst for NBA TV Wes Wilcox joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the trade season and predict landing spots for DeMar DeRozan, D’Angelo Russell, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Love.