clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Great Point Guard Experiment: How Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks are revolutionizing the NBA

New, comments

As the Milwaukee Bucks struggled to make it through a disappointing season, their grand experiment of putting The Greek Freak at the point is looking to be a great success each week. CLNS Radio and CelticsBlog's Jared Weiss sat down with Giannis Antetokounmpo and spoke with players and coaches across the league to find out how the league's first 7-foot point guard is revolutionizing the game.

How do you define something you've never quite seen before?

Since he first hit the NBA radar, the league has been trying to figure out how to identify Giannis Antetokoumpo.  With his production finally catching up to the hype, the Greek Freak is finding himself taking the biggest step in his career.

As he eurosteps past conventional labels, he is becoming a pioneering player as the league's first seven-foot full time point guard.

Giannis has attracted endless adoration for his transition game, rifling cross-court overhand passes and routinely weaving through quadruple-teams on coast-to-coast drives.  While the NBA Twitterverse has anointed him Magic Giannson for his fast break marvels, moving to the point requires him to master the intricate plays that keep the rest of the team engaged and flowing.

His success as a point guard, point forward, point god, or whatever you want to call it, will rely on his ability to maintain patient control of the half court offense.  That takes learning the rhythm of being a point guard and improving his dribbling and passing skills.

"You got to be able to read passing lanes," Giannis told CelticsBlog.  "You got to be able to know what the defense is going to do before they even react to you.  And of course, you've got to be able to dribble, to make the best use of your skills in order to be effective at the point guard position."

While most point guards try to stay low to the floor to maintain a quick dribbling speed and protect the ball from the defender, Giannis is staying upright and using his height to work with passing lanes above the defender.

"He's gotta be him," coach Jason Kidd told CelticsBlog.  "He's seven feet tall, so [it would] put a strain on his body to get lower.  There's a couple tall point guards who play tall.  Magic Johnson being one of them."

"I think Giannis right now, you could put pressure on him maybe because he is so tall, may be the only weakness he could have," Charlotte Hornets swingman Nic Batum said. "Because a guy like that is so tall. Guys like Kemba [Walker], they play low to the ground. It's hard to stop them because they are like on the ground and can do anything. If Giannis goes lower, his knee is going to cry out. He's going to hurt them."

Kidd doesn't see a need to change Giannis' approach, considering how well it's working in a vacuum.  While the team is still struggling defensively, the offensive rating has increased by 2.2 points since he took over ball-handling duties after the All-Star break.  Giannis is using his improved handling and footwork to keep the ball in control while using his body to get separation as he works the offense.

"You got to be able to read passing lanes. You got to be able to know what the defense is going to do before they even react to you." -Giannis Antetokounmpo

"I think the next step is being able to use your body," Kidd said.  "He's using his height.  Magic had a way of being able to protect the ball with his body, so that will be our next film study.

"As far as understanding, the reason I don't use myself is because I was using speed more than my body.  I didn't want to mess around.  Didn't want to give the defense a chance.  My idea was to go pass as fast as I could.  Magic could use his body to shield the ball and still be able to get where he wanted to go."

While shades of Magic are evident with every vine that trends on Twitter, Giannis hasn't even studied the Laker legend yet.

"I haven't studied [Magic]," Antetokounmpo said.  "I always watch film, but I haven't like sat down and studied with Jason Kidd.  No."

But when it's time for their film study this offseason?

"Definitely.  I'll definitely do that."

Tall point forwards like Batum and Evan Turner like to play lower to the floor to protect the ball and remain agile. But at Giannis' size, it may not be as viable of a strategy.

"It all depends on who is guarding you," Turner said. "I think over my career I find myself getting lower sometimes if I have a smaller guard and just try to shield if I have a bigger guy guarding me. I can kind of be medium sized. But I always want to be in attack mode, so obviously I kind of want to be a little bit large."

As a point guard, he is learning how defenders will press him whenever they can to wear him down.  Now that he is the clear focal point of the Bucks' offense, the defense will expend multiple players in its rotation to get Giannis in foul trouble and try to fatigue him.

"The main thing with him is that you have to pressure full court," Batum said.  "I tried to deny him full court and take him high, because if he attacks with speed, you're done."

His first step is long, but isn't as explosive as most smaller players.  It's his second step that gives him the unstoppable momentum that has condemned so many well-intentioned defenders to the wrong end of a highlight play.

"You gotta pick him up right away and take away his speed, because he's going to be good with that angle," Batum said.  "But when he gets space...whoosh!"

As Giannis has gotten slightly bigger and stronger over the past year, he has been able to dribble more comfortably while shielding the ball.  However, it's still an area where he needs more experience to survive the role every game throughout an entire season.

"I've improved a lot," he said.  "Playing game-by-game and learning the spot and being able to practice too.  I think I've improved a lot at using my body to protect the ball because sometimes the people that are going to guard me are going to be smaller.  Jae Crowder is a guy that likes to pick guys full court.  So I've learned how to put my body to protect the ball, so that's helped me out a lot."

"There's gonna be, with teams, I don't want to say smaller lineups ‘cause that's just the way basketball is going now, but they're going to pick him up and try to wear him down," Kidd said.  "So he's gotta understand how to offset that and that's probably the next process and next step for him."

The Celtics rotated Crowder, Jerebko, Turner and Avery Bradley on him throughout

"I tried to deny him full court and take him high, because if he attacks with speed, you're done." -Nic Batum

the game.  Although Giannis was racing to what would have been his sixth triple-double since moving to the point, he ended up in foul trouble and watched the Celtics blow the Bucks away from the bench.

Yet Giannis hit four of his five three-point attempts against the Celtics.  It was just the second time all year he made multiple threes in a game after doing it against LeBron James the game before.

It's the glaring weakness in his game and his first response when asked what he will work to improve this offseason.

"My three point shot.  Definitely my shot," he said an hour before hitting the season-high four threes against the Celtics.  "I gotta be able to knock down the open shot.  My body got to get stronger obviously.  Just got to learn my new spot.  That's something that I've got to learn a lot, but I know obviously J-Kidd and I are going to sit and spend a lot of time this summer together so I can learn as much as possible."

MAGIC GIANNSON: A MATCHUP NIGHTMARE

A seven-footer bringing the ball up presents numerous challenges for opposing defenses.  Practically every time Giannis is dribbling the ball in the direction of the hoop, regardless of where he is on the court, he is a threat to get to the rim.  So the first task for the defense is to get him to stop and run a play.

The gameplan across the league has been to pressure him while he brings the ball up and then reset into a deep sag once he settles into the half-court offense.  Having the high defender sagging low has its pros and cons. It clogs the lane to slow down cross screen actions, but allows Giannis to start drives even closer to the rim.  Even with a defender on him, two steps is usually enough to get off a floater or layup.

"Right now I think teams are backing off him and trying to make him shoot, because he is a long dude," Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko said.  "He is dangerous out there once he gets to the hole and starts penetrating.  So I just try to back off him, go under screens and just keep a hand up when he shoots the ball."

"Just don't let him get some speed.  No space," Batum said.  "His weakness was that he couldn't shoot yet.  But he gets better and better each day.  That's why maybe you can wait on the free throw line and let him shoot.  When you're maybe crossing half court, maybe you can step out a little bit."

Teams will often vary how closely they guard him, depending on height disparity and time in the game.

"You never want to give a guy the same look the whole game," Heat rookie Justice Winslow said. "It's like football: You don't want to run Cover Two the whole game."

"I did good on the perimeter, but then they started to utilize his size," Hornets guard Courtney Lee said. "Him and Jabari Parker was two guys I guarded, so they took me to the post man. I made it a little bit tough for them."

Luminaries for Giannis like Batum are blown away by how rapidly he has improved since his usage spiked.  While enhanced performance is expected when a player is more involved with the ball in their hands, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he has the intelligence and work ethic to improve in any way possible.

"If I know him, next time he is going to get a way better jump shot," Batum said. "He got better and better every day. Last time I played against him - we played him two weeks ago and the last time we played him was two months ago. He wasn't like that two months ago.

"He can pass. He's got great vision. He's got very big hands and can go to his left.  Once he can shoot it, he is going to be really scary."

Even though he still can't shoot it, his move to the point slightly opened up a Bucks offense that needs further refinement and development. He averaged 66.5 passes per game after moving to the point, ranking seventh in the NBA per NBA.com.  He was 14th in potential assists per game with 12.9 during that span, ranking 14th in the league just ahead of Steph Curry.

With Giannis on the ball and Michael Carter-Williams out for the season, Jerryd Bayless filled the shooting guard spot with Khris Middleton at the three. Considering how Giannis and MCW were shooting from the perimeter earlier this year, keeping Giannis on the ball allows for the potential of effective spacing on both sides of the floor.

Giannis has adapted well because of his significant improvements in body control and ball handling.  His dribbles are closer to the body and shorter than earlier in his career.  Because he is less agile than most point guards covering him, he uses his back and hips to shield the ball well.

"I know it sounds crazy to say now, but if he keeps doing this, maybe in his career he can average a triple-double or come close to it." -Nic Batum

Most swingmen can do this well enough to maintain a straight drive to the hoop and finish with contact.  But Giannis is learning to do this as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll while keeping his head up to read passing lanes.

"All year [Kidd had] been telling me I have to put my head up," Giannis told NBA.com.  "I always go my first two or three dribbles with my head down to speed it up.  J-Kidd told me to keep my head up -- sometimes the pass is going to be on the first dribble.  It helps me a lot.''

While this has held especially true in transition, he is learning to utilize the space of the entire front court to implement mini-transition plays in the half-court offense.

In this pick-and-roll, Miles Plumlee sets the screen too early for Giannis and Houston successfully ices the play.  He wisely backs up to the half court logo and begins to drive right, just as Jabari Parker retreats to the corner.  He takes his first dribble, keeps his head up and rifles a cross-court fastball for a Parker three.

"I've got to get on a chair to figure out the things that he can see," Kidd told NBA.com's Ian Thomsen.  "There's very few people who can make a pass from this corner all the way to that corner and not be a lollipop -- he could throw a fastball and the guy could catch and shoot.  His line of sight is something that I've got to make the adjustment with, as he's running the break.  He's seeing things differently.  If I can help him by understanding what he's seeing, hopefully I don't screw him up.''

Most players wouldn't want to post-up in Dwight Howard's area, but Giannis is well equipped to use his height to his advantage from the baseline.  When the defense is forced to put their point guard on him, he uses his height to draw double teams from the post.

Giannis posts Ty Lawson right from the perimeter and then spins baseline, pulling Dwight Howard to the corner and opening up the lane.  All five of Houston's defenders turn to face Giannis as Parker times his cut.  He times it perfectly with Terrence Jones mistaken show to cut off the perceived baseline wraparound pass.  Howard is out of position, slow to react and Jason Terry doesn't even bother defending the dunk.

The next evolution for Giannis will be to learn how to keep his dribble going in these situations.  Running this set against smart and well-matched defenses will lead to successful traps and more turnovers.  But Giannis is one of the rare point guards that can pass out of pretty much any trap.

"For Giannis, he can change the game, if he has not already changed the Milwaukee Bucks with the way he's playing right now," Kidd said.  "Just being 6'11, his sight line is just different than most point guards.  So it's actually kind of fun to watch and to see the process of growing and getting better each time he takes the floor."

As Giannis gets around the screen with Turner sticking to his hip, he uses his hips and a sneaky hand to leverage Turner behind him.  He then dribbles into the middle of the lane, where Miles Plumlee is rolling down the weak side lane.  Because Zeller already sank too deep icing the pick-and-roll, he is caught in no-man's land for the pass.  Because of Giannis' absurd length and touch in the paint, Zeller bites easily on the upfake.  John Henson wisely boxes out Kelly Olynyk as soon as the ball leaves Giannis' hands, allowing for an easy dunk for Plumlee.

These are the types of plays that only work with a big ball handler who has the power to shield his defender away while drawing the post defenders up in the air.  He is running these plays well against second unit defenses, but has to get more creative against better defenders.

The lack of an outside shot will always be a major burden for Giannis and will make driving from the wings more difficult for Middleton and Parker.  Even when getting close position against a smaller player, he still struggles to shoot over them.

In a broken play against the Wolves, Giannis ends up with a post up on Zach LaVine, who is half a foot shorter than him.  When he spins left into a double team from Adreian Payne, he picks up his dribble and makes a bad pass turnover right to the Wolves' Tyus Jones. It's the kind of improvisation he is still trying to figure out. While he can reset out of a failed pick-and-roll and wait for the next action to come to fruition, he is still prone to putting his blinders on in more difficult situations.

While improved spacing can help, it won't happen without teams respecting his outside shooting. Running actions from the top of the key with defenders going under picks kills any type of spacing Middleton and a rapidly developing Parker can provide.

"We really didn't worry about the shots they were making," Celtics big Jared Sullinger said. "A lot of them were contested shots and we understood they weren't a really good three-point shooting team, and we could pack the paint."

Kidd recognizes that while his team dominates the paint, they need an outside-in approach to catch up to the prevailing contemporary offensive strategy.

"The process of Jabari and Giannis is - we didn't have them shoot threes last year and we found a way to win and be successful," Kidd said. "The game is changing quickly and the three-pointer has become more important than a layup. So you gotta look at those guys shooting and continue to shoot more threes. We're encouraging them and I think you're going to see that they're more comfortable shooting it."

Giannis is anemic to shooting above the break threes, with most of his corner threes coming while he was playing off-ball. Giannis recognizes the defenders daring him to come closer and will often run drives off screen resets and post ups to get deeper into the paint. He uses the deep pick-and-rolls to force slower bigs to switch on him, or get clear outs to post up guards on the block.

But it wasn't until late in the season that he began to embrace taking the easy shot the defense offers up.

"Usually they lay off. Pretty much all defense is the same against me," Giannis said. "They live with my jump shot. I've got to know how to balance when I got to shoot it and because I [don't] always like to shoot every shot. Coach wants me to shoot whenever I'm open, shoot the shot whenever the defense is backing up."

The fear around the league is that not only would he be unstoppable with a decent shot, but it could be ready for next season.

"I think [his three-pointer] was 10 percent of his shots total and that actually ratcheted up since the last time we played," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "If he makes that a part of his game, watch out."

It's an essential next step that will help the team maintain a big lineup that will leave opposing point guards nowhere to hide. The Bucks needed Bayless' shooting next to Giannis, allowing the defense's shortest player an even assignment.

"Because Bayless was playing as a two guard, I was guarding Bayless and I think Luol Deng guarded [Giannis]," Heat point guard Goran Dragic said. "[Bayless] was most of the night in the corner. Giannis would play pick-and-roll and if he doesn't have nothing, then most of the time they swing the ball into that second situation with Bayless."

The less teams are able to hide smaller players away from him, the easier time he will have working the perimeter. He already has turned into a triple-double machine and scores at will despite nearly all of his points coming in the paint.

"I know it sounds crazy to say now, but if he keeps doing this, maybe in his career he can average a triple-double or come close to it," Batum said. "He can be the next one to do it. Like for real. If I could choose one guy to do it, it would be him."

While the stats are trending toward mind-boggling, the consistent winning is still out of reach. With reports that Kidd and GM John Hammond are no longer standing on solid ground, the future for the Bucks is hazy at best.  Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe have not proven to be ideal fits around the Giannis-Middleton-Parker trio and will be shopped hard this offseason.

The Bucks have the cornerstones in place for a great team, but will need to carefully choose the glue that holds them together. At the rate that Giannis is growing, it's on the rest of the Bucks to keep up with him.

This article originally appeared on CLNS Radio.