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We’re About to See a New Giannis Antetokounmpo This Season

The Bucks are following their new coach’s points of emphasis, and it’s doing wonders for one of the NBA’s unique superstars

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a miracle that Giannis Antetokounmpo is already considered an MVP candidate. The 6-foot-11 star may have every physical advantage in the book, but the MVP award is still tied to team success, and the Bucks over the past few seasons have done him no favors. In crucial developmental years, Giannis has led offenses that played at a snail’s pace and lacked spacing. That all figures to change this season, with the hiring of former Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, whose revisions to the team blueprint should enhance Antetokounmpo’s seemingly limitless abilities, while pushing the team as a whole from good to great. And it starts with movement.

“Everybody’s gonna touch [the ball]. Everybody’s gonna shoot it,” Antetokounmpo told reporters following last week’s preseason game against the Bulls. It’s the quintessential mantra of modern offenses, one implemented by Budenholzer, who was a member of the Spurs from 1994 through 2013. Budenholzer knows how to get teams to share the ball. He’s done it his entire career. Milwaukee, welcome to the beautiful game.

Budenholzer Will Have the Bucks Playing Faster This Season

Season Bucks Pace Rank Hawks Pace Rank
Season Bucks Pace Rank Hawks Pace Rank
2017-18 20 8
2016-17 26 11
2015-16 23 8
2014-15 14 15
2013-14 21 13

Data via NBA.com/Stats

Budenholzer’s Bucks will play at a brisk pace and move the ball from one side of the court to the other, all in an effort to keep defenses off-balance. That’s a mentality unlike the one exhibited by Jason Kidd’s Bucks, which featured a heavy dose of isolations.

In the play above, Milwaukee, working as a unit, almost casually finds an open 3 for Khris Middleton. The Bucks have rarely had moments like this over Antetokounmpo’s career. But they’ve been more frequent in preseason as the Bucks race the ball up after rebounds, turnovers, and even following makes. Playing fast gets them into their half-court sets more quickly, and it can force mismatches in transition, especially with a dominant open-court player like Giannis. They don’t slow down in the half court. The Bucks are hustling through actions and shooting a lot more 3s.

3-Point Frequency Rate

Season Bucks 3-Pt. Rank Bud Hawks 3-Pt. Rank
Season Bucks 3-Pt. Rank Bud Hawks 3-Pt. Rank
2017-18 25 6
2016-17 22 16
2015-16 30 6
2014-15 24 3
2013-14 23 2

Data via Cleaning the Glass

The team has jacked up 44.8 percent of its shots from 3 in two games this preseason. While it’s a small sample, it’s an encouraging figure, one that far exceeds last year’s share of 29.7 percent. Budenholzer’s offenses in Atlanta leaned heavily on lineups with four or five shooters, and now Milwaukee will do the same. The Bucks should especially desire playing five shooters in a pace-and-space offense so the paint will be wide open for Giannis, as he said last week, “to do whatever I want in the paint.”

That’s exciting news for one of the most exciting players in basketball. Here’s what it’ll look like for the Bucks’ franchise player going forward.

Screening

“When I talk with Mike Bud, [he said to me], ‘I know you can score. I know you can dominate guys in this league. But how can you make the guys around you better?’” Antetokounmpo recalled last month. Now he’ll be running with improved personnel around him. The Bucks added sharpshooters Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to a collection of floor-spacing bigs that was formerly occupied by only Thon Maker. Even John Henson and Tyler Zeller, who have attempted a combined 47 3s since 2012-13, are spacing the floor from the corner 3 this preseason.

Lopez and Ilyasova have their issues defensively, and they aren’t perfect on offense. But when one or both of them are on the floor, the Bucks resemble something close to their ideal selves: size and length at every position, shooters all around the perimeter, and enough space and flexibility in the half court to use Antetokounmpo anywhere on the court.

With four shooters around him, Giannis has access to myriad scoring opportunities and playmaking options. A trend I noticed in Milwaukee’s first preseason game was Antetokounmpo handing the ball off, screening, and making something happen on the short roll.

This is a play that Draymond Green popularized; when the Warriors put Green at center, he’s able to pick apart defenses from the middle of the floor. The Bucks don’t have Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, but they do have Middleton as well as multiple big men who can shoot well. Here, Giannis locates Lopez for a corner 3, but the shot rims out.

In the second half, Milwaukee twice utilized Antetokounmpo in the same concept from the baseline. Budenholzer promotes player movement, and the message is being received up and down the roster. In the play above, John Henson recognizes the collapsing defense around Giannis, catches his shuffle pass, and finishes a sick left-handed look from Antetokounmpo. It’s a malleable play that will eventually lead to layups and dunks for Giannis. You’d find Giannis in similar situations during the Kidd era. But the increased spacing should only make it easier for him to score and tougher for the defense to make the right decisions when rotating. The closer Giannis is to the rim, the more of a threat he is. And the Bucks know it.

Post-ups

The Bucks have made a point of getting the ball to Antetokounmpo inside. While big men of Giannis’s size have historically used the post to set up their own shots, in today’s game, playing with your back to the basket is more likely used to create easy points for others. Al Horford and Paul Millsap thrived as playmakers in the post under Bud in Atlanta. Now the Bucks are running similar sets to feed Giannis.

Here, the Bucks run a rub screen under the rim into a post-up for Giannis. If the double comes, he’s ready to find the open man. If there’s an opening to score, he’ll seize the opportunity like in the play above. Justin Holiday—who is five inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Giannis—has no chance as the Greek Freak turns, dribbles once, and dunks.

Notice how Lopez and Ilyasova—the two traditional bigs—are setting screens for Middleton on the weak side as Giannis feasts. Under Budenholzer’s mandate, bigs on the floor now have to be able to both do the dirty work and space the floor. There are many ways to create space, and Bud is exploring all of them.

Isolations

Sometimes the Bucks’ best transition offense is actually Giannis turning a fast break into a methodical isolation play. Antetokounmpo can create points from angles that few other players can, and he often does. Even with a numbers advantage in transition, Giannis will frequently dribble straight into the post or pull back when mismatched against a slow-footed big man.

The fast break above cross-matches Robin Lopez onto Antetokounmpo, and former teammate Jabari Parker onto Brook Lopez. The floor is spaced enough in this instance for Antetokounmpo to iso and easily glide toward the rim. (Parker is standing nearby but he doesn’t get paid to play defense, so the paint is wide open.) Even if there were a player there who cared enough to clog the lane, Brook Lopez is open for an easy kickout pass. And had a defender been there to close out, Lopez could attack off the dribble or swing the ball to Middleton—like in the first play we looked at.

Giannis has always been a willing passer since his time playing in Greece’s second-tier basketball league, but he’s also long been a midrange enthusiast. Last season, nearly a quarter of his shot attempts came from midrange. Slowly but surely, Budenholzer might be moving him out of the dreaded offensive dead zone. So far this preseason, only two of his 25 attempts have come from that range. Antetokounmpo isn’t settling, and he’s looking for his teammates even more than in the past.

Kidd and Joe Prunty liked putting Antetokounmpo in the same spot around the elbows. It’s an area of the floor he can score from or look for teammates. The difference now is Antetokounmpo no longer has to settle in tight quarters.

Pick-and-Roll

The cool thing about this Bucks roster is their shooting bigs will allow the Bucks to play funky inverted sets. We’ve seen Antetokounmpo operating on the roll and from the post, but we’ve only seen him once as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll in the preseason. Budenholzer’s offenses in Atlanta ran the pick-and-roll—even with a big like Millsap handling occasionally—far more frequently than the Bucks have since Giannis entered the league.

Hawks vs. Bucks P&R Frequency

Year Bucks P&R Frequency Rank Hawks P&R Frequency Rank
Year Bucks P&R Frequency Rank Hawks P&R Frequency Rank
2017-18 23 1
2016-17 28 15
2015-16 28 17
2014-15 25 11
2013-14 20 11

Data via Synergy Sports

Antetokounmpo was involved as a pick-and-roll ball handler for only 354 possessions last season, which is about 500 fewer times than LeBron James—and even eight fewer times than Mike James, who was cut by the Suns after only 32 games. Antetokounmpo ran only two pick-and-rolls last week against the Bulls—and there’s no footage of his game on Sunday against the Timberwolves in Ames, Iowa—but if Budenholzer follows the same formula as he did in Atlanta, then Antetokounmpo should theoretically be involved in actions with Lopez or Ilyasova popping for 3s or even a guard like Middleton or Eric Bledsoe screening to force a mismatch.

It remains to be seen how much Antetokounmpo will be used as a pick-and-roll ball handler, or if those duties will still be given mostly to the guards on the roster. But in the meantime, Giannis looks even meaner in the open floor now that he’s equipped with shooting bigs. Sometimes he’s playmaking:

Sometimes he’s dunking:

The play above isn’t a pick-and-roll, but it’s a good illustration of what Giannis can do to a defense when he’s moving downhill toward the rim. If you rotate over, he can find open shooters. If you don’t, he’s finishing at the rim.

Shooting

We’re seeing in real time how proper spacing can enhance Giannis’s game, but there’s still one key element missing, as has been the case his entire career. We’re still waiting on a jump shot, which, under Budenholzer’s guidance, could unlock new dimensions. Antetokounmpo shot only 22 percent on pull-up 3s and 34.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season. For all the talk about ball movement and spacing, there will be moments—especially against good teams—when the Bucks will need a bucket at the end of the clock and the best option is a Giannis isolation. But Antetokounmpo scored 0.84 points per possession on 255 shots out of isolations last season, largely because he hit only 27.8 percent of his 137 jump shots, per Synergy. Change could come though. Giannis told fans last month to “be excited”—apparently he can hit jumpers now.

Antetokounmpo’s most impressive perimeter shot this preseason came from way downtown in Parker’s grill.

It’s a symbolic moment: Parker, who left the team over the summer as the most underwhelming and disappointing Bucks pick of the Giannis era, gets roasted by Antetokounmpo. Parker versus Antetokounmpo is past versus future; bust versus steal; doubt versus hope.

Giannis is shooting 2-for-5 from 3 so far this preseason and, weirdly, just 8-for-16 from the free throw line. But put aside the numbers. What matters are the mechanics, and Antetokounmpo’s mechanics feature a smoother, quicker rhythm. He still looks a bit stiff as he shoots, so I wouldn’t expect a super high percentage from him, but his timing is better at bringing the ball to his release point, which helps maintain momentum and consistency as he launches.

Antetokounmpo will be in the MVP conversation no matter how his revised shooting mechanics translate this season. He’s too much of a force scoring inside, and an uptick in playmaking responsibility with a spaced floor and better ball movement will only enhance his game. But we can still dream about that jumper.

If Antetokounmpo even becomes a 33-to-35 percent shooter from 3—up from 28.4 percent over his career—that could be enough to make him a threat to pull up against defenders who go under screens in the pick-and-roll. Or, if he’s off the ball, defenders will have to play him more tightly, which could lead to cutting chances for Giannis to score with ease.

Milwaukee’s new offense and the benefits for Antetokounmpo won’t necessarily make the Bucks a better team. After all, they ranked 10th in offensive rating last season despite their vintage style of play. It was the 18th-ranked defense that had issues. The defense needs work both individually and collectively; they’re still breaking the aggressive hedging habits in favor of Budenholzer’s system, which takes a less intense approach with dropping and switching. As Budenholzer installs his new system, it’ll take time to adapt it, execute it, and then master it.

But more offense never hurts. And it’s not like they were elite; the Bucks scored 0.97 points per possession the half court, per Synergy, which ranked ninth. When Giannis is on your team, the ceiling is the NBA’s no. 1 offense. The Bucks aren’t there yet. They can aspire to be.

Milwaukee’s bar for success this season shouldn’t be Finals-or-bust though. It should be taking a step toward actual NBA Finals expectations in 2020 and 2021—the third and fourth years of Antetokounmpo’s four-year, $100 million contract. It’s critical that Giannis and the rest of the team progress toward that ultimate goal—especially with Middleton, Bledsoe, and Lopez all potentially hitting free agency next summer. The clock is ticking for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to level up.