Ranking NBA's Top 15 Power Forwards This Season

Andy Bailey and Dan FavaleFeatured Columnist IJuly 9, 2020

Ranking NBA's Top 15 Power Forwards This Season

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    The power forward position may have changed more than any other in basketball over the course of a recent stylistic evolution.

    Dirk Nowitzki's shooting and all-around skill changed the game. Kevin Garnett showed how valuable playmaking can be from the 4. A general trend toward positionless lineups helped, too. The result is a crop of power forwards that looks very little like the bruisers of the '80s and '90s that many NBA fans grew up with.

    Instead, the top 15 power forwards in the NBA this season is a list that features plenty of every skill. Shooting, passing, rebounding, rim protection. You name it, and someone (usually more than one) here has it. Before we get to them, though, make sure to check out the other installments in our NBA 100 series if you haven't already, if only to use them as a frame of reference:

    Anyone who hasn't logged at least 500 minutes this season is not eligible for inclusion. Sample size isn't everything, but we're evaluating players based on what they've done in 2019-20 prior to the Disney World bubble. Playing time has to matter. To get out in front of potential snubs: Both Blake Griffin (barely) and Draymond Green meet the minutes threshold, but neither provided top-15 value at the position.

    Possession data from Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference will be used to help determine which players qualify as power forwards. Invariably, however, less-exact instances will demand judgement calls. These verdicts will be rendered after considering defensive matchup data, lineup deployment and consensus perception.

    Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, for example, both qualify as 4s, in large part because of the time missed by the latter. Ditto for PJ Tucker, whose positional designation is weighted heavily by the minutes he played before Clint Capela left the Rockets rotation for good.

    In the past, the power forward spot has housed some basketball revolutionaries. Their successors are pushing the definition of "power forward" even further.

                 


    *Editor’s Note: It's NBA Top 100 Week here at Bleacher Report. Check back each day as Andy Bailey and Dan Favale rank the top 15 performers at each position from the 2019-20 season, culminating in their top 100 player rankings on Saturday, July 11.

15-11: Tucker, Jackson Jr., Isaac, Gordon, Harris

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    15. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s inclusion among the power forwards might bother some. We feel you. Please know it was the consummate either-or call. His possession data is almost perfectly split, with a slight edge in favor of center. In the end, though, he logged enough time with Jonas Valanciunas and guarded enough non-5s to get the nod here.

    You're in no way alone if Jackson's sophomore effort hasn't blown you away. His fouling and rebounding remain issues, and for all the positionless tools he sports, he doesn't yet look the part of someone who can lock horns with opposing centers. Memphis allows 113.4 points per 100 possessions (34th percentile) and struggles to keep offenses away from the rim with him at the 5.

    Still, the Grizzlies have far worse outcomes than a version of Jackson that can't sponge up heavy minutes at center. He has the lateral mobility to hang with contemporary 4s; this isn't the San Antonio Spurs trying to prolong LaMarcus Aldridge's time at power forward.

    It makes more sense to trumpet Jackson's offensive progress. His three-point-attempt rate has more than doubled from his rookie season while his efficiency spiked by nearly four percentage points. Only six other players who have logged at least 500 minutes are shooting as well from deep (39.7 percent) on eight-plus attempts per 36 minutes: Davis Bertans, Cameron Johnson, Danilo Gallinari, Paul George, Georges Niang and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Jackson's range and volume are supreme luxuries on the frontline. Letting so many threes rip is a sure-fire way to ensure he has no trouble playing power forward, and it opens up the floor for his guards. Concern for his defensive progress is fine, but his long-range touch—which he couples with a fair-weather ability to put the ball on the floor, albeit in slow motion—gives way to a matchup-proof quality that cannot be undersold.

                  

    14. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic

    Jonathan Isaac would've earned much higher placement if not for a left knee injury that might end his season. Thirty-two appearances isn't a lot, but it's enough to reinforce that he—not Aaron Gordon, nor Markelle Fulz, nor Mo Bamba—is Orlando's future.

    One-man defensive systems have that effect. Isaac is a hellfire draw for any big or wing. His length is ubiquitous in passing lanes, and he can simultaneously guard the big and ball-handler in pick-and-rolls.

    Getting off jumpers with him in the vicinity is a chore. He ranks in the top seven of both short and long mid-range shots despite missing more than half the season, according to PBP Stats. His length is equally imposing closer to the basket. Opponents are shooting 51.4 percent against him at the rim, a top-11 mark among 67 players challenging at least four point-blank looks per games.

    Future Defensive Player of the Year candidacy is absolutely in play, if not inevitable, for Isaac. The Magic need only be concerned about his offense. The odds of him developing a serviceable floor game are slim, and he doesn't yet have enough spacing around him to get more bites as the roll man. If he doesn't hone his three-point shot, then Isaac, like Orlando itself, will be up against an artificial ceiling.

             

    13. PJ Tucker, Houston Rockets

    Has PJ Tucker ever missed a corner three? Asking for a friend.

    Tucker is the player every contender—and wannabe contender—lusts after: a low-usage shooter and defensive tryhard with positional range that contradicts his size. It isn't enough that he was already the Rockets' most valuable individual stopper on the wings. In the aftermath of Clint Capela's injury and eventual departure, they've made Tucker their de facto center.

    Living up to that job description isn't easy, period. It is an even more unreasonable ask for a 6'5" 35-year-old who has made a career out of absorbing the toll attached to playing consistent, unyielding physical defense.

    And Tucker, for the record, is not some panacea in the middle. Houston's defense ranks in the 34th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions when he's manning the middle. Sticking him next to Robert Covington has helped quite a bit, but there will always be a functional trade-off to playing sooo small, and it'll usually manifest most on the glass.

    Nevertheless, Tucker's value isn't exclusively tied to defensive returns. It is more so grounded in the freedom he provides the Rockets. They are the best version of themselves because he can switch from chasing wings to rumbling with bigs. Russell Westbrook, in particular, probably never completes his midseason turnaround without Houston diving into microball—an option the team only ever had because of Tucker.

            

    12. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

    Aaron Gordon's offensive arc has unfolded like a career-long identity crisis. Is he a big? A wing? Can he shoot? Handle the ball?

    Definitive answers have yet to be provided—not flattering ones, anyway. Gordon's role has varied. And while he's still most likely best suited as a finisher out of the pick-and-roll and in transition, the Magic have steered him closer to the wing end of the spectrum. They have few alternatives and, thus, no choice.

    This isn't always the best look for anyone involved. Gordon isn't efficient on drives or when pulling up off the bounce. But he has started to find his way as a playmaker. Head coach Steve Clifford recently saddled him with more pick-and-roll initiation, and he's responded by averaging 5.0 assists—and 8.3 potential assists—over his past 25 games.

    The Magic won't soon trot out Gordon without another setup man. But his improving feel for facilitation diversifies an otherwise humdrum offense. And if his standstill three-point clip holds—39.3 percent over this 25-game stretch—Orlando will have one of the league's hotter commodities on its hands: a playmaking defensive difference-maker with usable outside touch.

            

    11. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

    Evaluating Tobias Harris' season against the five-year, $180 million max deal he signed over the offseason would be unfair to him. He isn't playing up to that contract, but the Sixers aren't paying him to. Last year's market gave him leverage. Philly's still-mysterious breakup with Jimmy Butler gave him more.

    Harris actually has performed up to snuff following a rocky start to the year. He's averaging 20.0 points and 3.1 points while swishing 39.1 percent of his threes since Nov. 15.

    For all the Sixers' offensive clumpiness, they've fared quite well when Harris sets up shop at power forward—lineup combinations they have at the same time fielded more than you think and not nearly enough. (Translation: What is Al Horford doing in Philly?) His defense has also been pleasantly solid, even relative to the less-squirmy assignments he pulls by seeing so much time between some combination of Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle.

    If Harris is guilty of anything, it's of not being Jimmy Butler. He doesn't foment the same defensive discord when working off the dribble and, by extension, cannot lug the burden of an entire half-court offense for long stretches or during crunch time. His job is made that much harder by the Sixers' wonky roster construction. That he's not higher is on his limitations as a three-level scorer, and on Philly for not putting him in a better spot.

10. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets

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    Paul Millsap's role is nowhere near what it was during his All-Star campaigns with the Atlanta Hawks. He's 35 years old and playing 24.4 minutes per game (his lowest average since 2007-08). He is fifth among Denver Nuggets with 500-plus minutes in usage percentage.

    There's no question he's entered a role-player phase of his career, but he's undoubtedly making the most of the playing time he gets.

    On the season, Denver is plus-11.1 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the floor and minus-1.4 with him off, giving him a 12.5-point net rating swing that ranked in the 98th percentile.

    He remains a Swiss Army knife of a defender who can bother multiple positions and rebound at a solid rate. And even alongside Nikola Jokic, he posts a solid assist rate for a big.

    Put everything together, and Millsap once again finds himself in a small club. Only five players match or exceed his marks for rebounding percentage, assist percentage, block percentage and steal percentage in 2019-20.

    Of course, those are rate stats, though. If anything is starting to go for Millsap, it's durability. He only played 38 games in his first season in Denver. And he has had a difficult time staying on the floor this season.

    "The biggest mark against him is the missed time," Ryan Blackburn wrote for Denver Stiffs. "The starting power forward only played 41 of a possible 65 games, missing 21 on the season and 16 in a row at one point. That’s difficult for any team to overcome, and in a shortened season, missing roughly one out of every three games makes life difficult on the rest of the team."

    The Nuggets have played like legitimate title contenders when Millsap has been on the floor this season. He is the perfect gap filler in lineups with stars like Jokic and Jamal Murray. They just need him to fill those gaps in a few more games.

9. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The 2019-20 campaign has been something of a renaissance for Kevin Love. Last season, he appeared in just 22 games and posted his lowest box plus/minus since 2012-13.

    This season, he is averaging 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a career-high 2.6 threes in just 31.8 minutes per game. Adjust those numbers for pace and playing time and they jump up to 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.0 threes per 75 possessions.

    And he has posted those numbers on a team generally dominated by guard play. Collin Sexton leads the team in usage, and Darius Garland and Kevin Porter are above 20 percent. Cleveland were 22nd in potential assists when the season was suspended.

    That led to viral moments of frustration like this one, wherein he threw his arms up at Sexton during a possession, demanded the ball, then two-hand chucked it Cedi Osman before stomping toward halfcourt.

    In January, though, Love expressed remorse over this and other moments from a difficult season.

    "I wasn't acting like a 31-year-old, I was acting like a 13-year-old," Love told reporters. "That was not me."

    He was the veteran presence the young Cavs needed from that practice on. Prior to that admission, he averaged 16.4 points. Afterward, he scored 19.0 per game.

    It remains to be seen whether that was enough to reinvigorate his trade value. Love's current deal takes him through 2022-23, which will be his age-34 season. He's set to make a whopping $91.5 million over those three years.

    That's a huge commitment, but a team that fancies itself "one piece away" may look at the last few weeks of Love's 2019-20 and think he's the floor-spacing, solid-passing big who'll put it over the top.

8. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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    Trae Young understandably gets the most attention of the young Atlanta Hawks, but it's his budding partnership with John Collins that has the potential to make him a winning player.

    When Young is on the floor with Collins this season, Atlanta is minus-1.7 points per 100 possessions. When he is on the floor without Collins, that number plummets to minus-7.3.

    A big who can score from the inside and the three-point line is borderline essential in today's NBA. And Collins is exactly that. Whether Young is quarterbacking a pick-and-roll or isolating, Collins is an ideal receiver.

    His points per possession as a roll man ranks in the 84th percentile this season. And he is shooting 42.5 percent on 3.3 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game.

    Collins is much more than the 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and highlight-reel dunks you've seen of him. He has the potential to be a thoroughly modern 5 and half of one of the league's best offensive duos.

    On the other end, Collins certainly isn't bad, but he's not the kind of dominant defender that can cover for the deficiencies of Young. Clint Capela may be that, and Collins is nimble enough to play the 4, but the ideal configuration may be Young, Collins and three switchy wing/forwards.

    However those lineups are aligned, Atlanta should feel confident that it already has the box checked for a big man with All-Star potential.

7. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

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    It took him some time to find his basketball legs again, but once he did, Kristaps Porzingis has looked like the ideal big-man complement to Luka Doncic.

    He had averages of 19.2 points, a career-high 9.5 rebounds and a career-high 2.5 threes when the season was put on hiatus, but his 54.0 true shooting percentage was over two points below the league average.

    From Jan. 31 up to the suspension, though, he was at 25.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.2 threes with a 60.5 true shooting percentage.

    After sitting out all of 2018-19 while recovering from a torn ACL, we probably should've expected the slow start, but even when the shots aren't falling, you can see the stylistic fit.

    "He's throwing some really cool lob passes to [Dwight] Powell," coach Rick Carlisle told reporters in December. "I mean, you've got a 7'3" guy throwing to a 6'10" guy on a lob? That's pretty [expletive] cool if you ask me. Let's get off of all this stuff that KP needs to go in the post. He doesn't. He doesn't. I'm OK with him going in there once in a while, but we don't post anybody."

    Porzingis as a key cog in Dallas' Luka-run offense has worked wonders. The 116.7 points per 100 possessions the Mavericks have scored is an all-time high.

    But the bigger impact from KP may come on defense. His offensive rating swing is a near-neutral plus-0.1. But opponents score 5.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. He has a top-10 block percentage this season and leads all Mavs with at least 500 minutes in defensive rebounding rate.

    If he maintains that sort of defensive impact next season, while playing like he did in the first few months of 2020 on offense, the Mavericks will have one of the game's top duos (if they don't already).

6. Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Danilo Gallinari is still better than people realize. He is in his third season of posting a 60-plus true shooting percentage, a 35-plus free-throw-attempt rate and a 40-plus three-point-attempt rate, and he's top 70 all time in career offensive box plus/minus. James Harden and Chauncey Billups are the only players with more such seasons.

    This distinctly modern game has been a staple for Gallinari for years, but it has been particularly effective alongside Chris Paul with the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the two vets share the floor, OKC score at a blistering rate of 120.1 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile).

    And while CP3 rightfully gets most of the praise for the Thunder's better-than-expected attack—even Gallo said, "I think he's the best leader that I've played with."—the Italian forward deserves plenty of credit.

    Paul spreads the ball around more than most floor generals, but Gallinari is still his top assist target. And when CP3 plays without Gallo, that offense plummets to a below-average 109.3 points per 100 possessions.

    That impact has a lot to do with the shooting that forced defenders to watch him outside, but Gallinari brings a lot more offense to the table. His pump-fake-and-go game is top-tier. And he's one of the game's best at identifying disadvantaged defenses and actually moving into a drive before the catch. He's not the most explosive athlete, so even those plays didn't often end with wide-open layups, but he draws plenty of fouls that way. His uber-efficient attack is a critical part of the Thunder's success.

    On the other end of the floor, he has a harder time overcoming his weaknesses. He's often caught flat-footed on the perimeter. And he doesn't rebound a ton, despite being 6'10". Both contributed to opponents scoring 8.0 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, a defensive rating swing that ranks in the fifth percentile.

    But even with that deep of a hole dug defensively, Gallinari's plus-6.6 net rating swing still ranks in the 85th percentile. That's how much of an impact his offense makes.

5. Domantas Sabonis

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    Domantas Sabonis' first All-Star campaign has been a doozy.

    And his basic averages of 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 0.8 steals might not even do his production justice.

    Let's take a look at a pace- and playing time-adjusted comparison to 2013-14 Kevin Love, who finished second in the league in box plus/minus:

    • 2019-20 Sabonis (23 years old): 19.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 0.8 steals per 75 possessions, plus-2.2 relative true shooting percentage, plus-6.4 net rating swing
    • 2013-14 Love (25 years old): 26.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 0.5 steals per 75 possessions, plus-5.0 relative true shooting percentage, plus-9.8 net rating swing

    The key differences, of course, were Love's scoring and the fact that he was hitting threes, but the statistical similarities are unavoidable.

    The Indiana Pacers have a superstar talent on their team who can score around the rim and from the mid-range. His passing unlocks opportunities for teammates like T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo.

    And he's almost certainly better defensively than the 25-year-old Love.

    The Pacers allow 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Sabonis on the floor this season. And that isn't exclusively a function of the time spent with Myles Turner (though it helps). Indiana still defends at an above-average level when Sabonis plays without Turner.

    He's not a lockdown defender on the perimeter or a lights-out rim protector, but he generally does a decent job of just being in the way. Sometimes, that's enough from a big man. That and his ability to dominate the defensive glass makes Sabonis a plus on that end.

4. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    If you're thinking this placement is over-ambitious for a 19-year-old rookie who has only played 565 minutes, you're not alone. Even the writers behind this project struggled with the idea of Zion Williamson already being a top-four power forward.

    But his numbers leap off the screen about as explosively as the player himself leaves the hardwood.

    The New Orleans Pelicans' net points per 100 possessions is 12.2 points better with Zion on the floor, a swing that ranks in the 97th percentile and adds an estimated 29 wins to the team's expectancy over an 82-game slate.

    His 27.5 points per 75 possessions is the second-highest mark for a rookie since 1973-74 (as far back as per-possession data goes), just behind Joel Embiid in 2016-17 and just ahead of 1984-85 Michael Jordan.

    Zion's 62.4 true shooting percentage ranks first among rookies who logged a 25-plus usage percentage over the same span. Arvydas Sabonis (who was 31 during his rookie season) and David Robinson (24) wind up the top three.

    As far as scoring and impact go, Williamson pretty clearly justifies his position on this list. His feel in both fast breaks and halfcourt sets is way beyond his years. He knows exactly when to cut and sees lanes opening up seemingly ahead of time. His second jump is absurd, maybe even on par with a prime Shawn Marion, whose playing weight was 60-plus pounds lighter.

    Offensively, the next steps for Zion are probably a more consistent jump shot and a bit more playmaking for others. But even without those things, he's already a devastating offensive weapon.

    He needs a lot more work on the other end. His focus there seems to come and go far too often. His block and steal rates from college haven't yet translated. And it feels like he should be gobbling up more defensive rebounds. But we have to remember that he's a rookie. And he's a 19-year-old rookie. The learning curve for NBA defenders is steep.

    What's clear is that he has the physical tools to dominate defensively. His basketball IQ on offense suggests he should be able to pick up the concepts necessary to be a plus on both sides of the ball. But even if he doesn't live up to his potential as a defender and becomes, say, average on that end, his offense would still make him a mainstay at the top of lists like this.

3. Pascal Siakam

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    It isn't impossible to find a precedent for Pascal Siakam's career trajectory, you might just have to venture outside basketball.

    Going from 4.2 points as a rookie, to 7.3 points as a sophomore, to 16.9 points and a Most Improved Player in Year 3 is wild enough. Then, Siakam made being the first back-to-back winner of that award feel like a real possibility early in the season.

    Being elevated to the No. 1 option following Kawhi Leonard's departure torpedoed Siakam's true shooting percentage, but he's still 15th in the league in points per game (23.6) and is posting a slightly-above-average three-point percentage (35.9) on 6.0 attempts.

    This kind of production is a far cry from the projections of Siakam back when he was a borderline first-round prospect in 2016.

    "To even think that I'm in the conversation, I have an opportunity to be [in the NBA], that's crazy to me," Siakam told Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore three months before he was drafted. "For me, it's just about working hard every day and getting better. The thought of knowing that I might one day be there is amazing for me."

    Four years later, Siakam is an All-Star and the leading scorer for a 46-18 team defending a championship.

    And if that trajectory is any guide, he may not be done improving. The next step is merging the efficiency with which he played in a lesser role in 2018-19 with the volume he has had in 2019-20. If he does that, Toronto could remain a title contender for the foreseeable future.

    As for defense, there aren't many question marks there. The 6'9" forward can ably defend multiple positions and rarely gets lost in the Raptors' scheme. For the third straight year, Toronto is surrendering fewer points per 100 possessions when Siakam is on the floor.

2. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Year 1 as a Los Angeles Laker couldn't have gone much better for Anthony Davis so far.

    His per-game numbers of 26.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals, in concert with L.A.'s Western Conference-leading 49-14 record, has AD all the way up to fourth in Basketball Reference's 2019-20 MVP Tracker.

    The chemistry between him and LeBron James—who trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo in that tracker—seems instantaneous.

    The Lakers are plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions (95th percentile) when AD and LeBron share the floor. LeBron passing to AD is the most prolific assist combo in the league. And the three-time champion has had no issue deferring to Davis when both are in the game.

    In those situations, the big man's usage percentage is 26.7. And he trails only Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge in post-ups per game.

    The knock against Davis, of course, is that the Lakers are minus-0.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor without LeBron. And the defense is dreadful for those possessions.

    That may be a bit nitpicky, though, as his time in New Orleans probably taught us he's not the kind of player who can singlehandedly carry a team to above-average play.

    Instead, he may be the absolute best No. 2 (he still trails LeBron in usage) in the NBA.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    This might be the easiest call of this project. Giannis isn't just the NBA's best power forward in 2019-20, he is having an all-time great campaign, regardless of position.

    His 11.5 box plus/minus is the ninth-best single-season mark in NBA history. LeBron James (three times), Michael Jordan (three times), Stephen Curry and David Robinson are the only players with better seasons by that mark.

    And while the per-game numbers—29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks—that underlie that box plus/minus are eye-popping, they still don't do this season justice.

    Like Curry and the Golden State Warriors in 2015-16, Giannis hasn't needed to play a ton of minutes for his team to put games away early. For the season, he is averaging just 30.9 minutes per game.

    His per-75-possession numbers—32.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks—are literally unprecedented. And no one's all that close.

    That seemingly impossible individual production for a 53-12 team suggests Giannis should win MVP in a landslide. The aforementioned tracker agrees.

    For the reigning winner of that honor, the real prize might be Defensive Player of the Year. If he secured both awards, Giannis would join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in league history to pull that off.

    In addition to his 12.7 defensive rebounds (first this season and third-most all time), 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions, Milwaukee allow 11.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when Giannis is on the floor, giving him a defensive rating swing that ranked in the 98th percentile.

    For further context, the Bucks allow just 97.7 points per 100 possessions when Giannis plays. The league average defensive rating this season is 110.4.

    Not only is Giannis one of the most nightmarish (for opponents) point forwards the league has ever seen, he's a versatile defensive anchor who can guard multiple positions.

    If his still-developing jump shot ever truly arrives, it might be impossible to even imagine a 4 more perfectly suited for the modern NBA.

                

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

    Andy Bailey and Dan Favale cover the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow them on Twitter, @AndrewDBailey and @danfavale, and listen to their podcast, Hardwood Knocks.