Almost everything that makes Giannis Antetokounmpo great is slightly less impressive right now than it was last season. This matters more than it probably should. Anyone who manufactures 27 points, 11 rebounds and five assists per game—as Giannis currently is—with All-Defensive Team impact, on an offense that’s managing to score nearly two more points per 100 possessions than last year’s Mavericks (the greatest offense in NBA history), is an obvious problem.
Antetokounmpo continues to be one of the most impactful two-way players basketball has ever seen. To that end, criticizing a 25-year-old back-to-back reigning MVP who just signed the most lucrative contract in NBA history can feel harsh and reductive. But with great expectations comes an even greater responsibility. Antetokounmpo’s physical advantages are apparent on every play, but how he opts to exploit them against the very best teams is not impervious to concern or even doubt, especially in a seven-game playoff series.
While debates roil about the most efficient way to deploy him—be it as a dive man, irrepressible off-ball cutter, transition locomotive and/or pick-and-roll maestro—Antetokounmpo’s dormant, rudimentary post game quietly sits at the root of all his problems. If he can stand to expand one area of his game, this should be it.
“I knew we needed low-post scoring; we were more of a perimeter-oriented team my first year here, the year we lost the Finals, and I knew I had to get better, and in order for us to get better, we had to be more efficient in the low post, so I took that approach.”
This is what LeBron James told ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry back in 2013, reflecting on how his offensive game evolved after Miami lost to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. Afterward, LeBron famously traveled down to Houston and spent a few days working out with Hakeem Olajuwon, whose fluid low-post footwork was legendarily unguardable. “When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player,” Erik Spoelstra said then. “It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s post-up moves.”
LeBron and Giannis are not the same player, and the era whens James enjoyed his prime (or at least one iteration of it) had yet to meet the positional, three-point revolution we’re currently living through. But the parallels here are irresistible. Dominant back-to-the-basket offense from an ox-strong phenomenon who can score a bucket, earn a foul or draw a double team on every touch is the type of advantage championship teams have leaned on for generations. If Antetokounmpo made the left block his own personal torture chamber against primary defenders and switch-generated mismatches, the Bucks would be infinitely harder to defend than they already are.
But instead of making a commitment to hone that part of his game, Antetokounmpo has stubbornly stuck to a three-point shot that is welcomed by opponents who constantly dare him to take the bait—which happens way too often, particularly on wasted possessions where the ball never touches one of his teammate’s hands.
Antetokounmpo is taking 3.9 wide-open threes per game and making only 30.2%, which is fourth-worst among all players who average at least three attempts. The volume and accuracy is almost exactly what it was last season, when Giannis finished dead last.
This is not a growth area. It’s a graveyard. Meanwhile, instead of expanding his post-up attack, Antetokounmpo’s proportions have been static. In 2018, his post-up frequency was 12.4 percent. Over the next two seasons it was 12 and 11.7 percent. Right now it’s at 11.4, and his 0.76 points per possession rank in the 23rd percentile. Absorbed another way, he’s scoring a measly two points per game out of the post.
Making matters worse, in the last two postseasons Antetokounmpo’s post-up frequency was a paltry 5.7% and 7.4%, numbers that hint at fading confidence and/or comfort, be it from his coaching staff or himself. (On 22 more possessions, Giannis has scored four more points than Jayson Tatum out of the post.)
This is a tough pill to swallow given the limitless potential Antetokounmpo should have functioning in spots of the court very few, if any, individual defenders can deal with. The guy is so much stronger than he was a few years ago, when stout cinder blocks could thwart his back downs without help:
Today, he combines powerful shoulders with footwork that, while often far from an aesthetically polished visual, deserves more chances. The Bucks opened up a recent loss against the Lakers by posting Giannis up against Anthony Davis. He muscled through arguably the only defender more disruptive than himself for an opening bucket. But despite an and-one finish right at the rim, Milwaukee basically didn’t go to it again. Why?
For the most part, Antetokounmpo’s moves are physical and direct, be it two dribbles into a simple jump hook or, against defenders who can’t help but feel the need to contest his baseline turnaround, an effective step through.
Antetokounmpo is far from Nikola Jokic, though. He can’t up-and-under his man into a coma. His touch isn’t soft, and his bag isn’t particularly deep; disciplined defenders who scan the scouting report should greet one-on-one confrontations down low as a punishing albeit formulaic exercise. As an example, here’s what happens when Giannis’s man refuses to bite on that baseline turnaround:
A dramatic migration to the block is not easy. Post-ups are arduous, and there’s a reason 25-year-old James wasn’t willing to plant himself on the left block until his career arrived at a crossroads later on. The toll it takes on the body is immense, as is the brain power required to spot double teams, read coverages and find open teammates.
But even though Antetokounmpo isn’t the passer LeBron has been (who is?), there’s reason to believe he can eventually become proficient as a versatile post-up threat. Instead of honing an outside shot that probably won’t ever command respect from the other team, mastering a few more counters with his back to the basket would do a world of good for a great player who still hasn’t reached his ceiling. It’d diversify his skill set and give Milwaukee more half-court options, particularly against elite defenses that will have no problem switching pick-and-rolls when Giannis sets the screen.
It’s possible the Bucks will win it all without Antetokounmpo’s regularly taking games over from the block. But their path to the top will be much less complicated if he ever figures out how. The sooner he acknowledges the need to turn his three-point shots into low-post opportunities, the better off everyone will be.