LeBron James may be the best player in the universe, but the MVP conversation is all about the future. After James won four Podoloffs in a five-year span, the past five trophies have been handed out to relative newcomers. This week, as part of The Ringer’s Star Track: The Next Generation series, our staff zeroes in on five players who haven’t won an MVP but very well could in 2018-19.
Paolo Uggetti: Perhaps no active player in the NBA has grown more than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Literally. In pictures from his first season, when he was a lanky 6-foot-9, 190-pound 18-year-old, he looks like another person. These days, his physique looks like that of a WWE wrestler. In a photo of Antetokounmpo and his three brothers pumping iron that circulated this summer, Giannis’s right bicep looks as big as young Alexis’s head. Entering his sixth NBA season, the 23-year-old Giannis is now listed at 6-foot-11 and a muscular 242 pounds.
Giannis has also developed into one of the best players in the league. Antetokounmpo’s rookie season numbers pale in comparison with his production last season. He finished sixth in the MVP race, and averaged 26.9 points and 10 rebounds (both career highs), 4.8 assists, and 1.4 blocks.
But the evolution is far from over. Giannis shot a career-best 52.9 percent from the field last season, and he bumped his 3-point shooting up to over 30 percent. But he shot just under two 3s a game and saw his assist rate regress as the supporting cast around him struggled. Imagine what he can do this season with an improved roster, a new coaching staff, and another offseason to improve his own game. The more time Giannis spends in the NBA, the more he outgrows the typical parameters and expands the possibilities.
Jonathan Tjarks: Giannis is already one of the best offensive players in the NBA. The next step is translating his incredible physical tools to defense so that Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer feels comfortable playing him at the 5 in small-ball lineups. Giannis has the size, length, and quickness to protect the rim, switch screens, and stay in front of elite perimeter players. If those lineups hold up on defense, they will be impossible to slow down on offense.
LeBron James became unbeatable in the Eastern Conference playoffs when he became as dominant on defense as he was on offense. James took Derrick Rose out of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, and Giannis will have to do something similar to guys like Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and Kawhi Leonard for the Bucks to make noise. There’s no elite player in the league that he can’t match up with, but he still has to show that he can shut them down in a playoff series.
Zach Kram: Giannis scored in the 80th percentile of players as the pick-and-roll ball handler and in the 65th percentile as the pick-and-roll roll man last season—but even more impressive than his efficiency in those situations was his volume. Antetokounmpo was the only player to finish at least 100 possessions in both roles, and that singularity speaks to his extraordinarily diverse talents, as well as his potential to create an entire offense by himself.
Even in a league trending toward positionless diversification, most NBA athletes occupy a particular role based on their stature and skills: They’re small or big; they create opportunities or finish them; they score subtly or with a scream. Giannis, though, is all of the above; his 7-foot-3 wingspan comes with undefined edges. Even after five seasons in the league and ranking in the top five last season in points per game and PER, he is still in the process of discovering his basketball limits, if they even exist.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: No serious MVP candidate has risen to prominence as quickly as Giannis (+500). Joel Embiid, who was drafted third overall in 2014, has been in the public eye (and in sportsbooks) longer and seems further away at this point. Antetokounmpo has two factors working in his favor this season: Assuming Mike Budenholzer’s sterling record for development continues, the Bucks should look the best they have so far in Antetokounmpo’s career. Every former MVP dating back to 2012-13 has played on a team that has finished better than its preseason projected win total. (Voters tend to romanticize overperformers, like Russell Westbrook’s first season without Kevin Durant.) Milwaukee’s win total line opened at 46.5, which is low enough for it to surpass, but perhaps too low to be impressive enough for Giannis’s MVP case. Since 2013, each winner’s team has finished better than its projected record by an average of 8.9 wins.
Chris Ryan: The conventional wisdom on Giannis is that he is a once-in-a-generation physical talent who has added something new to his game every season. His game has the color palette of the Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and only former coach Jason Kidd’s boring-ass corners offense was keeping him in black and white. Whatever flaws we saw in Giannis’s game were a product of the system, not the player. Now with Mike Budenholzer on the whiteboard in Milwaukee, we’re going to see the Freak with acres of space, cutters buzzing around him, side-to-side ball movement, off-ball screening, and tons of shooting.
Here’s my thing: What if it wasn’t all on Kidd? Or, more precisely, what if the Bucks of the last three seasons were actually as much about Giannis’s basketball-adolescent predilections as they were Kidd’s ’90s-nostalgic system? What if Giannis … likes holding the ball at the elbow, dribbling around a bit, and waiting for an opening in the defense? What if he’s more 2017 Russ than Warriors Durant? The system doesn’t always unlock the player; sometimes it protects the player.
Kevin O’Connor: “Be excited about this season, I’m gonna hit [jumpers] in the games,” Antetokounmpo said last week in a quote that went viral. Antetokounmpo is an MVP candidate without a reliable jumper; he shot 34.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and 22 percent on pull-up 3s last season, so having a good one could make him the MVP favorite. But Antetokounmpo is already a scoring force without his shot.
I’m more intrigued by what he said later in the interview, when recalling instructions from Budenholzer to be more than just a scorer by elevating his teammates. “I know I’m a good player, but now it’s time to help other guys be great,” Giannis said. Being more of a shooting threat would help, but having a more significant playmaking element would rapidly close his gap with LeBron.
Antetokounmpo finished only 354 possessions last season as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy. That’s nearly 500 fewer times than LeBron—heck, it’s eight fewer times than Mike James, who played only 36 games last season. Budenholzer’s offenses use on-ball screens at a far more frequent rate than the Bucks have since Giannis was drafted in 2013. If those offensive habits continue in Milwaukee, then Prime Giannis is about to be unleashed.