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Giannis Is Better Than Ever—and He’s Going to Have to Be

The NBA’s reigning MVP has somehow taken his game to even more freakish heights this season. Can he shoulder an even bigger burden with Khris Middleton sidelined?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was easy to scoff when Giannis Antetokounmpo said this summer that he felt like he’d tapped into only 60 percent of his potential. After all, the dude had just averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game—numbers the NBA hadn’t seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in his prime—to lead the Bucks to 60 wins and their first conference finals berth in 18 years. I mean, if you’re winning Most Valuable Player and finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in the same year, how much better can you really get, right?

Well, I’m not sure what percentage Antetokounmpo would put himself at through the first few weeks of the new campaign, but I’d peg it somewhere north of 60:

Through 10 games, Giannis is outperforming last season’s ludicrous marks in just about every statistical category. It’s one hell of an encore to an MVP campaign, and it’s exactly what the Bucks need to make another push for Eastern Conference supremacy—especially now that All-Star swingman Khris Middleton has suffered a left thigh injury. The bad news: Milwaukee will be without its second-best player for up to a month. The glass-half-full view: They’re not the only Eastern power dealing with injuries right now … and none of the other teams have Giannis to take the wheel and steer them through a rough patch.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.7 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game; nobody’s ever done that for a full season. Even sicker: He’s doing it while playing just 33.1 minutes per night, as Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer continues to preach the gospel of load management to a superstar reluctant to embrace it.

Giannis is pulling down a higher share of available rebounds and notching assists on a higher percentage of his teammates’ baskets than he did last season. He’s getting to the line 11 times per game and firing just under four 3-pointers per night, both career highs. His usage rate is higher than ever, and he’s still among the most efficient scorers in the game. The only other player finishing more than 30 percent of his team’s offensive possessions with a true shooting percentage as high as Antetokounmpo’s is Damian Lillard, who has opened this season looking like the closest thing to Unleashed Stephen Curry we’re likely to see until springtime.

Pick your catch-all advanced stat of choice—box plus-minus, win shares per 48 minutes, player impact estimate, player impact plus-minus, value over replacement player—and Giannis is either no. 1 with a bullet or extraordinarily close to it. There are reasonable critiques of player efficiency rating, but it still seems like it would be a pretty good thing to be putting up the highest PER in the history of the sport … which is exactly what Antetokounmpo is doing right now.

The most obvious way for Giannis to improve after winning the MVP was to continue the years-long project of working on his shot. Antetokounmpo grew last season into arguably the most dominant interior scorer in the sport, a force of nature whose length, strength, athleticism, and ballhandling skills made it all but impossible for individual defenders to keep him away from the rim. (Well, except for this one guy.) The best—and, really, only—option most teams had to try to limit his offensive onslaught was to sag a mile off of him, build a wall at the foul line to prevent him from penetrating to the cup, and force him to either pass or take an open off-the-dribble 3-pointer, the lone weak link in the Greek marvel’s advancing all-around game.

After five straight seasons of shooting below 30 percent on pull-up triples, though, Giannis has opened the new season 10-for-27 (37 percent) on those tries. He’s stepping confidently into the shots defenses desperately want him to take and finally connecting on them. It’s the kind of development that gives opposing coaches insomnia and/or Chidi-style anxiety stomachaches:

If Giannis can make unassisted 3s at a respectable clip, while still having the capacity to freight-train his way through defenders to get to the rim, where he’s somehow converting at an even higher clip this season (74.8 percent inside of 5 feet) than last (72.6 percent) …

… and if he’s continuing to improve as a facilitator, stepping through double-teams to spray feeds to shooters in the corners or pick out cutters with on-target dimes through thickets of limbs in the paint …

… then it’s not immediately clear how you’re supposed to defend him, shy of petitioning the NBA to allow your dudes to legally wield bo staffs.

All that’s left, really, is to foul him. Opponents are certainly doing that; only anthropomorphic free throw divining rod James Harden has drawn as many fouls as Giannis this season. But while Antetokounmpo has had some memorable whiffs in that department this season en route to a career-worst 64.5 percent mark at the stripe, he’s also capable of scuttling that strategy by going 8-for-11, 7-for-10, 14-for-18, or 7-for-9, as he did in recent wins over the Magic, Raptors, Clippers, and Thunder.

When it’s going right—and it’s been going very, very right this season—Giannis can devastate an opponent pretty much all by himself. Unfortunately, he might have to put that talent to the test over the next few weeks.

The Bucks announced Monday that Middleton will miss the next three to four weeks after suffering a left thigh contusion during Sunday’s win in Oklahoma City, meaning Antetokounmpo will be without his All-Star running buddy for up to 15 games. That stretch of schedule doesn’t look quite as dire for the Bucks, who are currently tied for second in the East, as it could have ...

… but it’s still going to take some doing to replace the production of the Bucks’ second-leading scorer, and Giannis’s second-most-frequent target this season. Some of that responsibility will fall to Eric Bledsoe (Giannis’s most frequent assist target!), who’s been on a tear over the past half-dozen games following a slow start to the season. Promising young reserve wings Sterling Brown and Donte DiVincenzo should get a longer look, too. Depending on matchups, Bud could also opt for jumbo lineups featuring Ersan Ilyasova alongside Giannis and Brook Lopez. There’s no perfect solution to replace Middleton’s mix of secondary creation, spot-up shooting, defensive versatility, and offensive efficiency.

Or, at least, there isn’t anymore. That’s because Malcolm Brogdon—arguably the Bucks’ second-best player last postseason—plays in Indiana now, after Bucks brass opted to sign-and-trade him to the Pacers for a first-round pick and a pair of second-rounders. That move may prove prudent in the long run, if general manager Jon Horst can hit a homer or two in the draft. In the short term, though? Jettisoning Brogdon rather than going into the luxury tax to bring him back after extending Bledsoe and maxing out Middleton always seemed like it could be penny wise but pound foolish. The next month could offer some real insight into just how much Milwaukee lost in that deal, and shine a bright light on whether the Bucks’ roster is lacking the sort of shot-creation juice and defensive aptitude it will need to make a deep playoff push come the spring.

There’s another possibility, though: that, for the moment at least, Milwaukee will be just fine, because Giannis simply won’t let it be anything other than that. No Brogdon, no Middleton, trick-or-treat play from Bledsoe, a slew of options on the wing without any real sure things in the bunch—maybe none of it will matter, because Antetokounmpo, the MVP who just keeps getting better, really is good enough to cure whatever ails these Bucks. I’ll admit: It doesn’t sound right. But then, neither did the whole “60 percent” thing, and, well, look how that’s turning out.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Milwaukee created a trade exception in the Brogdon sign-and-trade.