How the 21-year-old, 6-foot-11 forward from Greece has shined as the Bucks primary playmaker since the All-Star break
POSTED: Mar 8, 2016 11:56 AM ET
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses over the past 10 games.
CHICAGO — Marques Johnson, who either was or wasn't the first "point forward" in NBA history and either did or didn't coin the term itself, left no room for equivocation Monday night.
"Forget the 'forward' part -- he's just a point guard out there," Johnson said of Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 bundle of raw skills who has been running the Bucks offense for the past few weeks. "You can see, when the Bucks rebound the basketball ... it really has given him a lot more energy. His eyes just light up when he calls for the ball and then pushes it up."
Now Milwaukee's color analyst, Johnson, a five-time NBA All-Star for the Bucks and the Clippers, got thrown some ball-handling and play-calling responsibility by coach Don Nelson one day about 35 years ago. Thus he took his place in a timeline that includes Robert Reid, Paul Pressey, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill, LeBron James and other wing-sized players who anecdotally have defined the unofficial and still fuzzy position of point forward.
But the way Antetokounmpo has been playing over his past dozen games or so, he has looked for significant stretches like Isiah Thomas or John Stockton in a funhouse mirror.
Nightly Notable - Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo records a triple-double with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against the Thunder.
He brings the ball into the front court, surveys the chess pieces with an unobstructed view over most of his defenders, then barks and points to get his teammates to their spots. Sometimes he shifts gears, attacking his man with his often-lethal mix of quickness and length. Other times he finds a cutter or hands off the ball to Khris Middleton or Jerryd Bayless and morphs from backcourt freak to frontcourt threat.
Little by little, the plan is to get him into more pick-and-rolls to further exploit matchups.
"The point forward position was just, initially, initiating the offense," Johnson said. "Not really looking to get out in transition and be Magic Johnson but just to bring it up the court to try to relieve some of the pressure on the guards.
"But Giannis is pushing, probing, penetrating, kicking. With the prodding of Jason Kidd, he has taken it to a whole 'nother level."
Check out this level: In Milwaukee's 10 games since the All-Star break, Antetokounmpo has averaged 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.9 steals and 2.0 blocks in 38.5 minutes. Only two players in NBA history ever filled the first three categories so completely (19 points, 10 rebounds, 7.5 assists): Oscar Robertson for three seasons (1960-63) and Wilt Chamberlain for two (1966-68).
Antetokounmpo has three triple-doubles in this stretch, along with a 27-9-12 game against Minnesota on Friday. When the third-year player went for 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, four blocks and three steals against the Lakers on February 22, he had game highs for both teams in all five stats (something no player had done since James in March 2009). Antetokounmpo hit those marks again Sunday with 26-12-10-4-3 against OKC, becoming the first to have multiple stats lines crammed like that since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1989-90.
Olajuwon, of course, was 27 years old and a 7-foot center when he did that. Antetokounmpo is 21, stands just one inch shorter and is doing it as a point guard.
"It takes a certain level of skill, man," said Johnson, the Bucks broadcaster. "To be that tall and be that comfortable dribbling the basketball, that's not something a lot of guys 6-foot-7 and taller are comfortable doing. Especially going full-court against smaller defenders, protecting the basketball."
Said Antetokounmpo: "The goal right now is, I'm always trying to be aggressive. I'm always trying to score first. I know that, if I try to score first, the defense is going to collapse -- everybody's in the paint. Now I'm sure there's going to be some open guys.
"I cannot take 30 jumpers a game. Got to have a balance. You've got to get your teammates involved."
That is the point guard's primary task, one that Antetokounmpo has embraced regularly now that Michael Carter-Williams has been lost for what's left of the season for hip surgery, with Greivis Vasquez already sidelined by ankle surgery.
[Jason Kidd] is talking to me, giving me tips every day. It's like having a cheat code."
– Giannis Antetokounmpo
Kidd and the Bucks previously flirted with Antetokounmpo as a playmaker but never like this, as his daily job description. Necessity is one thing, ongoing competitive advantage and even historic positional breakthrough are quite different. Can this really become a thing?
"I think it's feasible and he's got the skill set to do it," said Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. "Because they have multiple ball handlers on the floor -- I mean, Middleton can handle the ball, [Jabari] Parker can handle the ball, O.J. Mayo can handle the ball -- so it's not as if he's the Chris Paul of that lineup and has to make all the plays.
"What it does is, it puts pressure on your defense and your matchups. You look across their board and it's 6-11, 6-10, 6-10, 7 feet, with maybe one small guy. You've got some decisions to make as far as where you're going to put your point guard."
Giannis Antetokounmpo notches a triple-double with 18 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists as the Bucks beat the Rockets 128-121.
The Bucks like their point guard right where he is: Learning the position from one of the best ever to play it. Kidd intentionally has been keeping things simple and straight-forward, limiting the nuances and complexities that make that spot the trickiest of the five.
"It's just the progressions, just like a quarterback," Kidd said of the biggest challenge for a newbie playmaker. "Being able to digest the first progression, second progression. Sometimes it's you first, sometimes it's the one who's setting the pick or whoever the play's for. Just understanding different passing lanes.
"But I think when you look at some of the guys like KG and Dirk and those guys who changed that [big forward] position, now you've got someone like Giannis being able to play on the perimeter and make plays for his teammates. It's a different passing angle. I'm not that tall, but when you talk about Magic being able to see over the defense, it actually is an advantage."
Said Antetokounmpo of Kidd's tutelage: "Having J.Kidd talking to me after practice, before the game, after the game, it's great. He's talking to me, giving me tips every day. It's like having a cheat code."
All of this has been happening on the fly, with opposing defenses learning to counter Antetokounmpo as ball handler as they confront him. Using multiple defenders is one tactic. Oklahoma City essentially built a wall to block any blow-bys and force decisions. The Bulls had Mike Dunleavy or E'Twaun Moore back off him, basically challenging Antetokounmpo's jump shot.
"Yeah, yeah, you've got to make him make shots from the outside," Dunleavy said. "Because he's so good in the paint. That's the area you've got to try to make him beat you."
Said Kidd: "This is still new. You saw Minnesota had [Ricky] Rubio guard him. Houston, [Trevor] Ariza was picking him up full-court. You saw a couple other guys loading up to him to make him more of a passer. You can start to see, guys are trying to wear him down. But what he's done, he's gotten off the ball and he's starting to realize, 'Hey, if there's two on me, I can get it to a teammate and they can do what they have to do.' "
Bayless, a point guard by trade, said communication on the court needs to be Antetokounmpo's top priority. But the 27-year-old veteran added: "He's got intangibles you just can't teach. As big as he is, the things he can do, nobody else can really do."
Add to that the things Antetokounmpo couldn't do until now -- numbers falling into place deep into his third NBA season -- and the prospects are thrilling. Or frightening, depending on the uniform you're wearing or cheering.
"My confidence right now is really high," Antetokounmpo said. "When I look at myself when I came in as a rookie and how I feel right now, it's amazing. It's a big difference. So I can't imagine how I will feel in two years. I can't wait for the future."
The future, in all its lanky, cloud-piercing, play-calling glory, seems to be here.
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