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Independent Study: Who Giannis Should Be Watching

Even the best players can get better. Here’s who should be on the reigning MVP’s watch list during the NBA hiatus.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Giannis Antetokounmpo is posting historic numbers this season and will likely be awarded his second consecutive MVP, which would make him just the 12th player in NBA history to win back-to-back MVPs. The other 11 are all Hall of Famers, or will be someday. At 25 years old, Giannis would be tied with LeBron James for second-youngest player to win the award two years in a row, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Greek Freak’s improvements each season of his career show that he lacks any sense of complacency; his best years are still ahead of him. So, with the regular season suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, I can’t help but wonder: What could Giannis work on during this unexpected time away from the court to get even better?

Welcome to Independent Study, a series that details the players from the past that current stars should be watching to propel their games forward today. We’re kicking things off with Giannis since he gave us the idea for this in the first place with his recent Instagram post featuring a photo of himself rubbing his chin. “Just watched Chris Bosh and Paul Pierce’s highlights,” Giannis wrote in the caption. “Who should I watch next?” Though Giannis may have just been feeling nostalgic, let’s get into why Bosh and Pierce are perfect choices to be on his watch list, and then answer his question.

What Giannis Can Learn From … Chris Bosh

Poking holes in Antetokounmpo’s game seems silly, but one area that remains good, not great, is his post scoring. Giannis has scored 0.97 points per post-up in the past two seasons, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. It’s a fine level of production, especially considering the amount of defensive attention Giannis receives. But it pales in comparison to the numbers logged by the game’s current best post scorers like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, and players from the past like Bosh.

Bosh won two championships with the Heat and became a prototype for modern bigs by migrating away from the post to the 3-point line. But with the Raptors, Bosh feasted from the post. Before the 2009-10 season, his last in Toronto, he bulked up to blend bullying with his face-up style, which amounted to a career-best statistical season. Bosh averaged 24 points while scoring more than one-third of his points from the post, where he scored an elite 1.1 points each post-up—of all players to log at least 500 post-ups in a season since 2004-05, Bosh’s season is the most efficient.

Bosh’s signature way to get buckets was jabbing or pump-faking and then making his move. He could score from both blocks using either hand to sink running hook shots, like in the clips above. Only 15 of Antetokounmpo’s 183 post-ups this season were face-ups—it’s just not something he utilizes, which makes him and Bosh effectively opposites.

Bosh weaponized the threat of his jump shot to create driving lanes, which Giannis hasn’t quite done yet. However, there’s reason to believe he can. Much has been made of Antetokounmpo’s improved 3-point jumper, but he’s also improved from 2-point range. He’s shooting 42 percent on 2-point jumpers, up from 35 percent last season, per NBA Advanced Stats. It’s not a great number, but it’s solid enough for defenses to respect him. Giannis is like a modern Shaquille O’Neal, using brute force to get to the rim, but he should establish his face-up game to make himself more dynamic. If he can incorporate elements of Bosh with runners and hook shots, he’ll become a more versatile post threat who can thrive away from the rim.

What Giannis Can Learn From … Paul Pierce

Giannis added to his midrange bag this season by incorporating a fadeaway jumper he uses when his path to the rim is blocked. He also added a half-spin that looks a little bit like Pierce.

Pierce became one of the league’s best scorers during his prime because of his footwork and feel. He could read a defense and react with the right move at the right time. It didn’t matter where he caught the ball, he’d find a way to generate a shot. Antetokounmpo is not that type of perimeter scorer. But he can learn from Pierce to be more unpredictable from midrange, which would make him even harder to defend.

Pierce authored so many clutch moments in his career because he had the ability to create space to shoot, of course. But he also had a knack for scoring off-balance even when his shot was heavily contested. As of now, most of Antetokounmpo’s made midrange shots come when he’s fairly open. When he’s contained, he passes—which is the right move in the regular season. But, as the alpha on the Bucks, there will be moments in the postseason when the clock is winding down, and he’s the one who will be forced to shoot.

Basketball was a much different sport in Pierce’s prime. Scorers like Pierce routinely took contested midrange shots, even with lots of time on the shot clock. Times have changed, but the same principles apply in clutch situations for stars of today. Giannis could level up again with the ability to rise and shoot even when he’s uncomfortable. He’s so dang tall that it’s hard to contest his shot anyway. He just needs reps launching his shot when an opponent is making contact, much like Pierce had to do so many times in his career.

Whether Giannis is on the low block posting up or driving the ball from the wing or the elbow, proving that he can take and make contested shots would open up a whole new world of possibilities. If his shot is effective, it will open up room for him to get tricky with the type of pump fakes that Bosh and Pierce long used to hoodwink defenders.

Giannis is such a devastating interior scorer that defenders are grilled by their coaches not to bite on pump fakes. They want Giannis to shoot. They’ll always want Giannis to shoot unless he becomes an undeniably good shooter. But even if the results are average, it will give him another tool, and the variety in his game will add up to make him an even tougher cover.

Who Should Giannis Watch Next?

There are many ways to answer Antetokounmpo’s question. Trolls commented that he should watch Steph Curry or JJ Redick, but let’s be more realistic here. When you think about players who best blended power and finesse, Hakeem Olajuwon comes to mind. Hakeem could overpower behemoth opponents, but he also had balletic footwork that he used to dance to the basket. It’d be shocking if Giannis hasn’t already digested all he can from Hakeem. Though the Greek Freak doesn’t have all-time great footwork like The Dream, it’s still pretty.

The better Giannis gets as a scorer, the more defensive attention he’ll receive. Teams will double. Teams will trap. Teams will throw everything they can at him. Giannis will need to become a better passer. While Giannis has made progress in locating open teammates, he can still improve at making quick decisions and delivering more accurate passes. The perfect candidate for Giannis to watch next is Kevin Garnett.

In 2002-03, Garnett led the Timberwolves in points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals. He was the third player in NBA history to lead his team in all five categories. Dave Cowens and Scottie Pippen were the first two, and LeBron James and Giannis have done it since. Garnett might be best remembered for anchoring top defenses and winning a championship in Boston, but he was the hub of some of the league’s best offenses during his prime years in Minnesota. Scoring was his first responsibility, but passing was his secret sauce.

KG was ahead of his time. At a listed 6-foot-11, Minnesota empowered him to dribble the ball up the court and initiate sets, which isn’t dissimilar to how bigs with skill are utilized today. In the half court, the Wolves fed Garnett all over to generate points for himself and others. KG surveyed the floor with the vision of a quarterback. He’d dish touch passes immediately after receiving the ball, find cutters from the high post, and attack off the dribble to draw the attention of the defense and create a passing lane.

From 1990-00 through 2004-05, Garnett logged six seasons in a row with an average of at least five assists. No other big man has as many—both Wilt Chamberlain and Jokic are next with four total, per Basketball-Reference. If KG had modern spacing with shooters around the floor, his assist numbers would have been even higher. He also rarely made mistakes, averaging only 2.8 turnovers in those six seasons, with a seemingly innate feel for when to score or distribute to others.

Garnett weaponizes his scoring by pump-faking in the clip above, which caused three Blazers to leave their feet and open a passing lane to a shooter. Giannis is a willing passer who makes the simple plays, but he doesn’t yet have advanced vision and can’t create passing lanes like Garnett. Garnett wasn’t an excellent facilitator, but he was still a great player. His playmaking aptitude sets him apart as one of the best players ever. Giannis should take all that he can from him.

Antetokounmpo’s rare combination of strength, length, and athleticism blended with skill separates him from other past and present superstars. But even though Giannis is on a Hall of Fame trajectory, his game is incomplete. Adding some of the finesse elements found in Bosh, Pierce, and Garnett would make the Greek Freak even freakier.