He is as long as the game’s biggest bigs, yet able to cover ground laterally and, with that triple-jump stride, longitudinally with the swiftest of the little guys. He can play any position needed in almost any situation – in fact, when his Milwaukee team faced Golden State last week, there was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s name in what traditionally is the point guard’s spot on the scoresheet, listed at “G” as a counter to the Warriors’ elusive point guard Stephen Curry.
He won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020, the same year in which he won his second MVP, joining Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only two to snag both in the same season. He’s on track potentially to do that again, earning the top spot on this site’s weekly MVP Ladder and climbing the Defensive Ladder for January, too.
He’s still only 27, by the way. So all the talk about Antetokounmpo’s improvements offensively – the way he has developed his mid-range and perimeter shots to extend his scoring range and tightened up his free throw routine – can be applied to his defense as well. Consider him a finished product at that end at your own peril.
“Seeing and reading things, he continues to improve,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “A little bit of communication – I’d like him to use his voice more. But in timeouts and coming out, he’s good. Being able to just see the game, contest … when he’s using his length and his arms are out there when he’s in a stance, things like that, that’s when he’s at his best.”
Antetokounmpo can crouch low and face up against a ball handler. He can hold his ground in the post against bigs. But where Antetokounmpo thrives is in helping teammates defensively, turning what might start out as a coin-flip scoring chance into something far more difficult.
Poor Kevon Looney of the Warriors got three of his five shots swatted by the Bucks star in their recent meeting. The first was classic head-to-head rim protection where his block deftly went right into the hands of a fellow Buck.
The second involved a switcheroo, with Looney sizing up Bucks guard Grayson Allen in a mismatch until Antetokounmpo swapped in for his smaller teammate.
And the third was on Looney’s second effort after the Warriors big man seemingly shook free of Milwaukee’s Pat Connaughton, only to have Antetokounmpo creep up behind him to block him again.
A long night for Looney, a long night for Golden State and a reminder of Antetokounmpo’s ability to protect the defensive end.
“He can guard anybody,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “With that size, with that type of athleticism and agility, he can guard 1 through 5. Which is the ultimate weapon. Which is what Draymond can do. There aren’t many guys who can do that.
“Defensively, that’s the name of the game these days. It covers up a lot of holes when you can guard every position. It allows a coaching staff to draw up different schemes and put out different lineup combinations. That type of versatility is huge these days.”
Asked about his defensive development since arriving as a skinny kid from Athens in 2013, Antetokounmpo rattled off the names of seven or eight Bucks coaches he’s had. He also spoke of some physical attributes.
“I’m at my best when I’m active,” he said. “I’m behind, I help my teammates, I show length. When guys drive, I’m showing my body, my length. Rebound the ball. That’s what Coach Bud wants me to do and I’ll keep doing. I also believe I can move my feet pretty well.”
Mostly, though, Antetokounmpo talked of the mentality behind his defense – not unlike the other players on this Ladder.
“Defense is all about how much effort you’re willing to give in a game,” he said. “There are some games, as bad as it sounds, the effort is not there. There are other games where you go out there, you have energy and you show effort.
“In games when I’m not good defensively, it pisses me off more than missing shots, going 5-for-25. Defensively, I like to take the challenge. I take it personally sometimes when I get scored on. It’s just something that, I don’t know where it comes from, I enjoy playing defense.”
Given the recent layoffs of fellow DPOY contenders Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert, we’re using this edition of the Ladder to raise Antetokounmpo to the top rung. But as we all know, a lot can happen between now and the end of the season.
(All stats through Sunday, Jan. 16)
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last month’s Ladder: Not ranked
Just as Antetokounmpo steadily climbed the MVP Ladder, he has moved up this one as well. Statistically, his numbers are solid but don’t leap off the screen – 10.1 contested shots per game, 1.6 deflections, opponents shooting 3.9% worse when guarded by him, and so on – but that’s not unlike Draymond Green with Golden State. And Kerr considers Green the NBA’s best defender, maybe ever. Especially with center Brook Lopez sidelined by back surgery, it’s unnerving to think what Milwaukee’s defense might look like this season if not for Antetokounmpo’s multi-faceted impact.
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
It’s getting to the point we need to dub this guy “Rudy Dangerfield” because it seems he gets no respect for all his defensive impact. Three-time DPOY winner, something only Ben Wallace, Dwight Howard and Dikembe Mutombo have managed, right? Stats for defense aren’t ideal but Gobert puts up strong ones: first in rebounding (15.2), first in rebound percentage (25.6), first in total contests (821) with a 41.9% opponents’ field-goal rate, first in defensive win shares (2.6). He challenges teammates (that means you, Donovan Mitchell) to raise their games at the defensive end of the floor. And within days, all anyone wants to talk about is Russell Westbrook summoning a moment in his otherwise dreary season to dunk over the Jazz big man. So what if the Lakers guard grabbed and held Gobert with his off-hand in a clear offensive foul? We’ll just go with this: Utah’s defensive rating overall this season is 108.5. Its rating in the recent five-game stretch (1-4) Gobert didn’t play: 120.3.
3. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
They’re not officially on/off numbers, but rather present/absent stats that demonstrate Green’s value to the Warriors. In games through Jan. 5, Golden State ranked first in defensive rating (102.2), second in net rating (9.1) and, for that matter, ninth in offensive rating (111.4). Since their defensive “middle linebacker” and hub of their offensive wheel went out with a calf injury, those ratings have taken a beating: 104.8 defensive, 0.7 net and 105.5 offensive. The take-charge forward not being around to bark out opponents’ sets or to personally bail out teammates as a help defender has shown up statistically as well as in the W-L record (2-4 since Green has been out).
The Next Five:
(In no particular order)
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
• Improvement in pick-and-roll, while still protecting Sixers’ rim.
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
• Rookie contesting 12.7 shots and blocking 1.7 nightly.
Jarred Vanderbilt, Minnesota Timberwolves
• Minus-6.9, 110.3 def. rating off bench. Plus-6.2, 105.7 as starter.
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
• Hitting career highs in rebounds (8.8) and steals (2.0).
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
• Those league-high 2.8 blocks per game explain much of his trade value.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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