There’s not much more you could have asked of Giannis Antetokounmpo in his dominant MVP campaign last season. The 24-year-old sensation remained the league’s top physical talent, and his strides as a ball-handler and playmaker unleashed the Bucks’ run-and-gun offense. The Bucks won 60 games in year one of the Mike Budenholzer era, and in late June, Antetokounmpo gave a touching speech as he won MVP at the NBA Awards.
Last season launched Antetokounmpo into the stratosphere of the league’s top stars, and he enters 2019-20 as perhaps the best player in the NBA. But outside of his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, Giannis has discussed his prior season with one consistent qualifier: room to grow. Antetokounmpo said in July he’s hit “60%” of his potential, and if he’s even moderately correct in his assessment, the league should run for cover.
Antetokounmpo isn’t wrong when he notes his potential improvement in 2019-20. His season did end with the MVP, but Milwaukee ultimately didn’t host the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time since 1971. It’s no shame to lose to the Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, especially at such a precocious age. Yet ultimately, the Toronto series revealed a relative blueprint for how to slow Antetokounmpo. Giannis is undeniably spectacular. He isn’t infallible. His struggles against Kawhi and Co. are reminiscent of a young LeBron, falling short of the Finals with Cleveland despite MVPs in 2008-09 and 2009-10. James made marked strides in Miami and became a champion. It’s possible Antetokounmpo does the same in June 2020.
So what does Giannis need to do to rise from MVP to champion next season? Think of his growth not as an overhaul, but rather a slate of tweaks around the edges. Antetokounmpo battled Rudy Gobert for Defensive Player of the Year in 2018-19; there’s little discussion over his defensive prowess other than collective gawking at his highlights. It’s the few offensive shortcomings that have held Giannis back, even by a hair. Consider two modest proposals for Antetokounmpo to take the next step.
From Poor to Passable
It’s not a novel idea that a better Antetokounmpo from the perimeter would result in a more efficient Bucks offense. But where exactly is Giannis on the Ben Simmons spectrum, and what can we expect for improvement in 2019-20? There are reasons for optimism. As we’ve noted with prior bigs evolving to the perimeter, percentages aren’t always as indicative of growth as attempts. A player may struggle from beyond the arc or outside of 15 feet in year one of a project, but the willingness to pull the trigger in-game suggests a level of comfort. Antetokounmpo wasn’t reticent last season. He shot over 200 threes for the first time in his career in 2018-19–albeit at 25.6%–and he launched 3.7 threes per game in the playoffs, a career high.
Giannis made his greatest strides in the mid-range last season. He shot 41% from 16-23 feet and 38.1% from 10-16 feet, both career highs. Budenholzer is a full devotee of the three-point revolution (see: Lopez, Brook), and Giannis’ attempts from mid-range territory should decrease again next season. But the mid-range shot remains valuable for Antetokounmpo. Teams continue to sag aggressively against Antetokounmpo at every turn, and Toronto mastered the art of the wall. This isn’t breaking news. Giannis usually wins anyway. But the ability to score from any point of the floor is crucial among all superstars in the toughest playoff series. Some of James’ greatest shots in his career came from the elbow, the corner and beyond the arc. Antetokounmpo creeping toward league average as a shooter would mark a major development next season. It’s not an unreasonable request. If realized, we could have the next back-to-back MVP since Steph Curry.
It’s tougher to describe empirically the shift Antetokounmpo can make as a playmaker in his seventh season. James’ passing brilliance and generational court vision are a major part of his ascendance above any player this century. His joy in sharing the ball was a trademark of his high school and early NBA career. The mid-aughts were filled with meaningless cable TV debates every time James passed up a game-winner for an open teammate. The “more Magic than Michael” phrase was not an unfair assessment. James’ tape and box score matched the praise. He averaged over seven assists in six of eight seasons from 2007-08 to 2012-13, peaking with 8.6 dimes a game in his last Cleveland (pt. 1) season. James and Dwyane Wade's game of hot potato in Miami was a delight. LeBron’s outlet passes matched Kevin Love’s. The first years of his second Cleveland run were arguably James at his most brilliant, with fastballs pinged to open shooters at every turn.
Antetokounmpo doesn’t have to approach those highs to become a champion. Kawhi Leonard won the Finals as only a solid playmaker by many metrics. But improvement in the simple areas make a critical difference. Watch James roll downhill, stop on a dime and pinpoint the open shooter. Giannis was often proficient in these situations last season, though there was a stable of contested layups and charges.
Even the location from James is perfect in the above clip. Passing placement is another difficult metric to measure, though it can make a major difference in success from beyond the arc. The chasm is perhaps best illustrated by new teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Both superstars have posted historic usage rates, responsible for finding open shooters and roll men when they inevitably draw help. Harden’s edge in the category is notable. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker seem to catch pinpoint passes off Harden drives, flung crosscourt with either hand or in a crowd. Westbrook’s general chaos extends to his passing. Fastballs fly in high and outside, at shooters’ feet or above the numbers. The erratic passes did Carmelo Anthony zero favors; ditto for Victor Oladipo.
This isn’t to chastise Westbrook, who remains an elite playmaker, it's to make a point. For the Bucks, the extra foot to lunge for a pass can hurt Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe in the postseason. Growth for Giannis in 2019-20 may not be immediately evident, but even the smallest improvements can lift the Bucks in to the Finals next season.