NBA offenses are spreading ever farther past the 3-point line, but the space right in front of the hoop is just as important as it was two decades ago. And while LeBron James can’t compete with some of the new guard’s best marksmen beyond the arc, he has remained the king of the restricted area.
Last season, LeBron made the most shots in the restricted section of any NBA player. Two seasons ago, LeBron made the most shots in the restricted section of any NBA player. And three seasons ago—you guessed it—LeBron made the most shots in the restricted section of any NBA player. For more than a decade now, LeBron has been the sport’s premier force, period, but also its best player right at the basket: In his 15 seasons before this one, he led the league in made shots in the restricted area seven times and never ranked below sixth. It’s too neat to conclude that LeBron is the best player in the world because he’s the best player at the rim, but beneath his more illustrious Finals streak and MVPs and championships lies this seemingly unshakable NBA truth.
Yet now a new challenger to his at-rim throne has emerged, and in fact surpassed the veteran. Through Sunday’s games, Giannis Antetokounmpo is way out in front of the rest of the NBA in field goals made in the restricted area, with 155. Clint Capela ranks second, with 122; LeBron ranks a distant fifth, already 49 makes behind the lead in his first season with the Lakers. Giannis’s rise to the top spot has been a long time coming, as he finished second to LeBron in each of the past two seasons and third in 2015-16. But he’s accelerated his production this season to the point that he’s not only on track to finish with the most at-rim makes this season, but the most in recorded NBA history.
The at-rim numbers at NBA.com/Stats go back to 1996-97; in the intervening 22 seasons, the only players to hit 500 makes in a season are LeBron and Giannis last season and Shaquille O’Neal in 2000-01 and 1999-00. In the latter season, O’Neal set the on-file record with 571. (“On file” because primordial behemoths like George Mikan might have done better, but the centers opposing Mikan were also all about 4 feet tall and as sturdy as a piece of string cheese.) In 1999-00, Shaq, then in his fourth season with the Los Angeles Lakers, led the league in points per game and field goal percentage en route to winning the MVP. His lead at the basket was the most emblematic manifestation of his dominance: He had 41 percent more makes than the second-most prolific at-rim scorer (Antoine Walker) and a whopping 69 percent more makes than third place. Not surprisingly, the Lakers won 67 games and the first of three straight titles.
Giannis isn’t just on pace this season to match Shaq in “500 club” appearances or challenge his single-season record, though; he’s on pace to absolutely shatter it. Giannis’s 155 field goals in the restricted area through 19 Bucks games would extrapolate to 669 over a full season—nearly 100 more than Shaq. His torrid pace will probably slow some as the season progresses, or he might lose more time to injury (he missed seven games last season), but he has plenty of room to spare.
A mélange of factors has allowed Antetokounmpo to collect so many field goals so early in the season. The first is his sheer number of attempts: Giannis is taking 11.1 shots per game from the restricted section thus far; nobody since 1997-98 Shaq has averaged even 10 per game. Milwaukee’s pace—fourth in an NBA that is now operating at warp speed in seemingly every city—means more offensive possessions, and Giannis himself is taking greater advantage of his particular gifts to get to and finish at the rim.
Giannis has improved his shooting percentage in the restricted section every season of his career, and after drifting away from the basket the past two seasons—just fewer than half of his shots came from that area in 2017-18, the lowest mark of his career—he’s shooting from up close more than ever before in 2018-19. He is speedy enough to blow by defenders and strong enough to score in traffic, and when neither of those assets gives him an edge, he can just unravel his Mr. Fantastic arms to slam the ball on some poor sucker’s head.
Giannis said he felt bad about dunking on his Greek brother Kosta Koufos pic.twitter.com/tlD8rVsEmf— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) November 5, 2018
Antetokounmpo is shooting 77.5 percent from the restricted area, which is more than 20 points better than he managed as a rookie. Among 131 players with at least 50 at-rim attempts this season, Giannis’s success rate this season ranks sixth; increase the minimum to 100 attempts and he zooms into third, behind only Pascal Siakam (78.7) and Deandre Ayton (77.6).
And unlike many of the other members of this leaderboard—the Clint Capelas and Andre Drummonds of the sport—Giannis can get to the rim in a variety of ways. He’s like LeBron in this sense, able to maneuver toward the hoop by his own dribble or off a cut or in the natural flow of Milwaukee’s whirring offense, which ranks near the top of the league in fewest seconds per touch. He can drive in transition or the half court; he is unique in the whole league in his versatility as both a pick-and-roll ball handler and roll man.
Like LeBron, he combines the body of a big with the grace of a guard. He’s not a pure point man, but he handles the ball more than any other Buck. And though his shooting success outside the paint plummets, he’s not too dissimilar from young LeBron there as well. Is it a coincidence that James won his first MVP in his sixth season, while Giannis currently laps the field in MVP likelihood in his sixth season? Hmmm.
As a result of the (of course giant) steps Giannis has taken to become a more aggressive and efficient finisher, the Bucks’ new offense has become the best in the NBA. A decade after the Stan Van Gundy Magic rode a one-in, four-out lineup that orbited around Dwight Howard to the Finals, the Bucks have put a modern spin on the structure: In this variation, the “one” is a one-time point guard who can lead a fast break, and the “four” includes nominal centers like Brook Lopez (6.8 3-point attempts per game), Thon Maker (3.2), and John Henson (2.2 before being sidelined with a wrist injury).
New coach Mike Budenholzer has a clear plan, and it’s working: Milwaukee leads the NBA in point differential, net rating, and offensive rating. Most attention has rightly been lavished on the Bucks’ league-best 14.5 3-pointers per game, but they also rank second in the league in points in the paint (57.2 per contest), as they embrace both sides of the modern 3s-and-layups (or, as is typical for Giannis, dunks) philosophy. And while last season’s saga of 3-less Ben Simmons shows that Giannis might need to improve his jump shot by April for the Bucks to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2001, he hasn’t stumbled yet in the regular season. Antetokounmpo has scored 20-plus points in all but one game he’s played so far, and he missed that night only because Milwaukee was so far ahead that he didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
Plenty of teams in the pace-and-space era employ a one-in, four-out system, but the wrinkle of deploying a dexterous and able passer like Giannis as the “one”—rather than a one-dimensional rim-runner in the DeAndre Jordan mold—brings added benefits. Antetokounmpo is an abysmal outside shooter who is currently on pace for the worst high-volume 3-point shooting season in NBA history. But his success at the rim generates the same sort of gravity as a great shooter: Defenses warp wherever he is in the half court, creating greater opportunity for rupture elsewhere.
With opponents forced to send extra help or cheat out of their regular rotations to try to stop him from getting to the basket, Giannis can then pass to teammates for high-quality looks. That is no more obvious than when he is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll and kicks the ball back out to the perimeter. Milwaukee has scored 1.5 points per possession when a shooter spots up off a Giannis pick-and-roll, according to Synergy tracking—the best mark for 123 players with at least 10 such passes.
In these three examples, Giannis is so intimidating as he drives off a pick, even when the initial defender does a fair job bumping him away from a direct path to the hoop, that the strong-side defender crashes, leaving him an easy pass to an open shooter in the corner.
Overall, Giannis is averaging a career high in assists per game (5.7). He’s also recording a career-high usage rate, which means he’s influencing more possessions than ever before in a variety of ways—and that’s before you even arrive at his 13 rebounds per game. The only players in NBA history to record 27 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists per game over a full season are Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and while regression will likely take Giannis below at least one of those benchmarks before the season ends—for instance, he’s never averaged more than 10 rebounds before—his mere presence in that statistical company indicates his dominance through the season’s first quarter.
Giannis isn’t the kind of brute-force plodder who dominated the paint in the past; he’s all bouncing kinetic energy and sweeping, staggering athleticism. It’s a fitting blend for this era of NBA offense, as he raises his own game, his team’s offense, and—perhaps, eventually—a challenge to LeBron’s undisputed title of best player in the world. It’s early, but Giannis has at least got him beat in this small yet crucial section of the court.
All statistics current through Sunday, November 25, 2018.