Few things in basketball are better than an arena’s collective inhale. When Russell Westbrook revs up or rears back, you can feel the anticipation. When Draymond Green scrambles across the court and leaps toward an oncoming dunker, fans take to their feet and their mouths drift agape. There is a frantic buildup and a sudden release, all built around our familiarity with how athletes move and the amazing things that result.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the rare player who breaks that rhythm with regularity. The more basketball you watch, the crazier that Antetokounmpo’s play becomes. His length turns the ordinary fantastic; the ability to reach further and bend around defenders on the way to the hoop gives him access to angles that—because he alone can access them—were never really considered. This makes Antetokounmpo the league’s best surprise dunker. What starts as a static back-down from the perimeter can be spun on its head in an instant. Antetokounmpo can blow past even qualified defenders, after which he rises up from absurd ranges to cram the ball through the rim. You may be familiar with his work from Game 1 against the Raptors:
A viewer’s brain is programmed to expect a hook shot or a runner once Antetokounmpo collects. Instead, he stretches out to dunk over three Raptors defenders—a play literally made unguardable by the fact that he takes off from so much further out than expected. None of the three defenders even has a chance to jump.
This is how a player with a work-in-progress jumper on a team with poor floor spacing shot 68.8% in the restricted area this season. Opponents have every reason to pack the paint against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. But no matter how they steel themselves, Giannis manages to find tiny openings to turn into massive dunks.
Antetokounmpo rolled to the rim, killed his dribble, and ended up with Indiana’s Myles Turner—the No. 2 shot-blocker in the league by percentage—on his shoulder:
Two other Pacers swarm, but somehow the play ends with Antetonoumpo outstretching Turner and dunking so hard he nearly falls over:
When Antetokounmpo seemed to get stuck deep under the basket with no dribble against the Suns and no passing angles to speak of, the only wait is oriented toward a seemingly inevitable turnover:
Nope. Antetokounmpo waits for his defenders to land, jumps between them, and throws down with his left hand while under the basket.
Whenever a team thinks it has Antetokounmpo contained, it doesn’t. It can’t. This is where Giannis made his catch in a game against the Warriors this season, with the pesky Klay Thompson on his back and Zaza Pachulia in his path:
Whatever move you’d expect Antetokounmpo to make here, it probably wouldn’t end with him getting one had power dribble and shoulder-shoving the 6'11", 270-pound Pachulia out of his way:
This kind of finishing is just ridiculous. Antetokounmpo operates with a completely different set of kinetic guidelines from the rest of the league. They may be the most impressive collection of athletes in the world, but in every game he seems to uncork some exquisite move that no one else could. Giannis will catch a pass on the break while completely out of position and make a dunking angle on reach alone. He’ll spin or change directions—moves that naturally sap some of a player’s vertical explosion—but extend his arms high and crush the rim on his way down. A double team will seem to take away all of Antetokounmpo’s options:
Just before he rises up to conjure a new one:
And this happens all the time.
There are a finite number of things a player can do on a basketball court in a given moment. Giannis makes that selection feel limitless. If a defense doesn’t meet him with one of its tallest and longest defenders, Antetokounmpo’s arms will put his every shot attempt safely out of reach. If that defender moves at the speed of a typical power forward or center, they’ll be left in the dust on the first move or stranded on the ground when Giannis launches toward the rim unexpectedly.
Most of the transcendent players in the game—each unstoppable in their own way—at least give a defense a moment’s preparation. When Stephen Curry comes around a screen, the nearest defender can at least take a lunge at him. If LeBron James gets too deep in the post, an opponent can try to wrap him up and send him to the line. Antetokounmpo leaves no time for reaction. Either an opponent is all over his move from the start or they’ve already lost.