Year Three of Giannis

by Alex Boeder
Bucks.com Writer

Welcome to Year 3 of Giannis. This is the year that you officially stop becoming “the next…” someone and other people start becoming “the next…” you.

So let us get this out of the way:

  • In Year 3 of Paul George, he went from fourth option to All-Star and best player on a team one game away from the Finals.
  • In Year 3 of Carmelo Anthony, he went from 20 points on 43.1 percent shooting to 26.5 points on 48.1 percent shooting.
  • In Year 3 of Kawhi Leonard, he won Finals MVP.
  • In Year 3 of Kevin Durant, he won his first scoring title.
  • In Year 3 of LeBron James, he became arguably the best player in the world.

These are the five best small forwards in the game (you could throw Draymond Green into this mix of elite small forwards who turned in a transformative third year, and he is the most extreme example, though he played more power forward last season). They all jumped into a new star sphere in their third professional seasons. Not a coincidence. Check out the career arcs of high-level players, and there is a good chance you will see breakthroughs in the third year.

Then again, Giannis is also younger than any of the aforementioned third-year players were during their junior NBA seasons, and younger than just about any ever. And his productivity over his first two years does not match any of the five, not even the relatively mortal beginnings of George and Leonard. It feels hopeful to see Giannis at number 40 in #NBARank. It feels more realistic to see his number 100 rank by Sports Illustrated.

No Comparison

Despite the early comparisons, his game has never (ever) resembled that of Durant. And that is fine. Not that it is fair to put a cap on Giannis as a scorer at 20 years old, but he has not reached 30 points in his first 158 career regular season games. Again, he was a teenager for most of that time, and that is a major, major caveat. But even many optimists do not project him as a 23+ point per game scorer.

So is there any precedent for someone to reach NBA royalty in the mold of Giannis?

If only there was an all-time great forward who…

  • Never averaged 23+ points per game in a single season.
  • Couldn’t hit threes early in his career, so he rarely shot them.
  • Boasted superior athleticism.
  • Could drive, finish at the basket, and get to the free throw line…
  • … But struggled to consistently make free throws.
  • Passed naturally.
  • Made like a terror in transition, both on offense and defense.
  • Could bring the ball up the court.
  • Could guard all five positions.
  • Had a defense-first reputation, but also committed too many fouls in his first few seasons.

The Next Step

Flipping through basketball-reference profiles of star small forwards, one caught my eye. The early-career numbers looked familiar. Then the next day, I read this from an NBA scout on SI.com (which was great, because now I can blame this comparison on someone else, instead of feeling ridiculous and wrong about coming up with it):

Giannis Antetokounmpo is ready to take the next step. There’s so much to like: He puts his wingspan to good use on defense, he converts plays in transition and he’s a great kid. His shooting isn’t quite where you want it to be, but he gets away with it thanks to his activity level. He’s like a young Scottie Pippen...

Like a young Scottie Pippen (keep in mind, Pippen entered the league after a four-year college career at University of Central Arkansas).

And a disclaimer: Not on my list of very favorite things is when people compare Michael Carter-Williams to Jason Kidd based on early-career shooting percentages. You cannot get carried away starting with a weakness. You have to start with strengths, and then weaknesses, in comparisons. And this story is partly about eschewing all Giannis comparisons. Pippen is one of the best players in league history. A little something is here, though.

  AGE PER MIN PTS REB AST STL BLK TOV PFS FG% 3P% FT% TS%
Pippen Year 1 22 12.9 20.9 7.9 3.8 2.1 1.2 0.7 1.7 2.7 .463 .174 .576 .489
Giannis Year 1 19 10.8 24.6 6.8 4.4 1.9 0.8 0.8 2.1 3.1 .414 .347 .683 .518

The Bulls won 50 games. The Bucks won 15 games. The Bulls had Michael Jordan averaging 35.0 points per game. Team differences aside, these rookies show serious similarities, both with respect to strengths and weaknesses. Pippen scored 20+ points just twice in 79 games; Giannis never quite hit 20 in a game. Both turned the ball over too much and struggled at the stripe. And of course both players changed games on defense in bright moments.

  AGE PER MIN PTS REB AST STL BLK TOV PFS FG% 3P% FT% TS%
Pippen Year 2 23 14.9 33.1 14.4 6.1 3.5 1.9 0.8 2.7 3.6 .476 .273 .668 .524
Giannis Year 2 20 14.8 31.4 12.7 6.7 2.6 0.9 1.0 2.5 3.1 .491 .159 .741 .552

Both took major steps forward in role and productivity, pushing up efficiency numbers while charged with enhanced roles (both players started most games in Year 2 after coming off the bench in most games as Year 1). Both stepped up as scorers, though not yet prolifically. Offensively, both continued to turn the ball over too much. Neither bothered attempting threes because they couldn’t make them. They were both defensive standouts, and they both fouled a ton. One interesting difference: Despite very similar overall rebounding numbers, Pippen was a much stronger force on the offensive boards, while Giannis had a better defensive rebound percentage (in each of their first two years).

  AGE PER MIN PTS REB AST STL BLK TOV PFS FG% 3P% FT% TS%
Pippen Year 3 24 16.3 38.4 16.5 6.7 5.4 2.6 1.2 3.4 3.6 .489 .250 .675 .528
Pippen Year 4 25 20.6 36.8 17.8 7.3 6.2 2.4 1.1 2.8 3.3 .520 .309 .706 .561
Pippen Year 5 26 21.5 38.6 21.0 7.7 7.0 1.9 1.1 3.1 3.0 .506 .200 .760 .555

Now for the hard part. Over his first two seasons, Pippen became a good player. Over the next three, he became a great player. In Year 3, he became an All-Star. In Year 4, he was the second-best player (and a First Team All-Defense guy) on a team that blew the Lakers off the floor in the Finals.

Five Things to Improve

Among more than five…

Pippen never hit 30+ points in a game until Year 4, and then he did it six times, including a 43-point night. Pippen transformed into a consistent, even feared, scorer, and he did that without a 3-point shot (though he turned into a competent long-range shooter later in his career). The league has changed since then though, and Giannis will need to stretch his range to the perimeter in order to step up his scoring above third-option territory.

If the preseason is any indication (and well…), or if the playoffs were any indication, he has the look of someone ready to become the team’s top scorer once every week or so. You know, sprinkle in a 27-point game and win here and there. That would be a major personal development, as well as one for a team that ranked and 29th and 26th, respectively, in offensive efficiency in his first two seasons.

Perhaps more important than getting better at points of weakness (like threes) is truly maximizing existing strengths. Giannis already improved his free throw accuracy to a satisfactory 74.1 percent last season. He should be able to build on that, and he should be able to get to the basket and the line just about at will now. Jumping into the league’s top-20 in free throw attempts in the next couple years is possible.

The per-game numbers above don’t indicate it, but Pippen’s turnover percentage fell throughout his prime even as his ball-handling, game-directing, passing, and scoring responsibilities increased. Pippen was a genius-level passer, and Giannis may never be quite that, but he is smart and unselfish with the ball. Bad passes don’t comprise the majority of turnovers for Giannis though. He needs to tighten those handles and slow down when he needs to slow down, capture the pace of the game.

Right as Pippen started earning All-Defense honors, his personal fouls started to dip and dip and dip. And his steals numbers (already some of the best in the league) increased. That is a hard combination to pull off. Giannis ranked second in personal fouls in the league last season, and while plenty of top-tier defensive players dot the personal foul leaderboard (Draymond Green ranked third) last season, Giannis ranked second in personal fouls in the league, and that can improve. Vanity defensive metrics like steals and blocks tell only a small part of the defensive story, but Giannis should be getting in passing lanes. Continuing to create turnovers (the Bucks led the league in creating opponent turnovers last season) figures to be a central part of personal and team identity… and will help push him into good places on offense. And to a place where someone is writing hopeful stories about a rising star in 2027 with Giannis as the ideal, too.

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