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Giannis Is on the Cusp of His Next Evolution: Becoming an Elite Passer

With key Bucks players injured, the Milwaukee superstar has been shouldering the load with career-best playmaking

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Not much has gone right for the Bucks over the past few weeks. After an emphatic opening night victory over the Nets to celebrate its 2021 NBA championship, Milwaukee has run aground amid injuries, illness, and inconsistency on both ends of the court. The team has lost five of its last six to enter Tuesday’s game against the 76ers with a record of 4-6. That’s the franchise’s worst 10-game start since 2017—the year Jason Kidd got fired, and the year before Mike Budenholzer made his way to Wisconsin.

One thing that has gone right? Giannis Antetokounmpo’s performing one hell of an encore to his Finals MVP run. The 26-year-old ranks third per game in the NBA in scoring, ninth in rebounds, 11th in blocked shots, and is—perhaps most important of all for a wounded Bucks team in desperate need of playmaking—tied for 19th in assists per game.

Antetokounmpo has had to shoulder an even larger share of the creative burden than usual—more touches per game than last season, a higher average time of possession—due to the raft of injuries that has rendered the Bucks’ rotation almost unrecognizable. Khris Middleton has missed the past four games after testing positive for COVID-19. Jrue Holiday missed six games after suffering a heel contusion during the season opener; he’s back now, but operating on a minutes restriction, and has yet to log more than 30 minutes in a game. Brook Lopez hasn’t played since opening night, sidelined by an ominously vague back injury. Sixth man Bobby Portis missed four of the first five games coming back from a hamstring tweak. And Donte DiVincenzo—lest we forget, Milwaukee’s fifth starter last season—hasn’t played since undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ankle early in the 2021 playoffs.

So much firepower being unavailable has pushed role players like Pat Connaughton, George Hill, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, and youngsters Jordan Nwora and Justin Robinson into much larger roles than anticipated. The Bucks offense has struggled as a result, ranking just 21st in points scored per non-garbage-time possession and 22nd in points scored per play in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—a far cry from Milwaukee’s top-10 finishes in both categories in each of the past three seasons.

And yet, despite often being flanked by shaky offensive contributors with whom he hasn’t developed nearly as much chemistry as the likes of Middleton, Lopez, and Holiday, Antetokounmpo has been doing perhaps the best table-setting of his career. He’s averaging six assists a night, creating 16.2 points per game via assist, and dropping dimes on 36.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets—all career highs.

Antetokounmpo has always had court vision and playmaking panache, even if it rarely headlines discussions of his game. (That seems to irk Giannis a little bit; when he spoke with Eric Nehm of The Athletic at the Bucks’ championship parade, he pointedly said, “First of all, let’s start with this: Motherfuckers did not know I could pass.”) But despite the career-high numbers, his passing progress this season doesn’t leap off the stat sheet so much as it strikes you the more you watch him.

You see it in the way he’s diversified his pitching repertoire, emphasizing control and command in addition to the effective cross-court fastball. He’s serving up dishes more patiently—taking an extra dribble or hanging in the air a beat longer to force help defenders to commit, leading his teammates into open space on the move, and delivering soft, catchable feeds right in their shooting pockets:

It’s in the way he weights his bounce passes, putting them right on the money so that his teammate can raise straight up into his shooting motion:

It’s in how comfortable he looks against aggressive double teams—and with Holiday and Middleton out, he’s been seeing more than his fair share of those—calmly engaging defenders before spraying the ball out:

“I love it. It’s something that I haven’t been a part of before,” Antetokounmpo recently said of the need to get acclimated to the extra attention he faces on double-teams that are now starting to come right after he catches the ball. “It’s something new. It’s almost like they’re opening my eyes. Like this might come in the future.”

The more coverages Antetokounmpo sees and the more opportunities he gets to study them, the better his chances of eventually dismantling them—especially when he can locate the open man beyond the arc. The Bucks rank just 19th out of 30 NBA teams in 3-point accuracy, with virtually every high-volume long-distance shooter on the roster besides newcomer Grayson Allen (34-for-85 from deep and loving life alongside Giannis) still searching for his shot. Even so: Antetokounmpo ranks fourth in the league in 3-pointers created, according to PBP Stats, trailing only Julius Randle, Trae Young, and Cole Anthony.

Antetokounmpo has made the game easier for teammates for years as an elite interior finisher, one of the sport’s most menacing rim protectors and help defenders, and an instant nitrous-oxide boost of transition offense. His ongoing advancement as a facilitator who delivers the ball on time and on target offers yet another way. According to NBA Advanced Stats’ tracking data, his teammates are shooting 35.6 percent from 3-point range off his passes, about a point and a half above league average, and 45.6 percent on Giannis feeds overall, slightly better than last season. That’s despite offensive output being down in general to start the season, and despite Milwaukee missing four starters and its top frontcourt reserve for much of the early going.

That advancement might go under the radar, however, because Antetokounmpo isn’t routinely racking up double-digit assist totals. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Watch any Bucks game, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a handful of possessions when Giannis commands the attention of virtually the entire defense—drawing two on a drive or a post-up, freezing the help with a look-off or feint—before firing the ball to a waiting teammate right in the hands, with time and space to raise up, only to see the shot fail to find the bottom of the net:

As impressive as his six assists per game are, the fact that Antetokounmpo is averaging 12.4 potential assists—passes that created scoring chances and would’ve been dimes, if only his teammate had come through—indicates the elevated level at which he’s orchestrating right now.

That he’s conducting like this while also turning the ball over less frequently than he has in four years, while posting the league’s third-highest usage rate, and despite being forced by injuries to play the vast majority of his minutes at the 5, makes it all the more remarkable. The only players this season averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game, using more than 30 percent of their team’s possessions, and dishing assists on more than 30 percent of their teammates’ buckets? Giannis and Nikola Jokic. Just a couple of MVP point centers, doing absolutely everything in their power to keep injury-shaken contenders afloat.

Becoming an elite playmaker wouldn’t quite constitute Antetokounmpo reaching his final form; there’s still the pesky matter of his jumper, which has made some strides but is still going down only about 34 percent of the time. But as supernatural as Giannis would be with a sharpshooter’s form, the spectre of a player who can hang 30 on any defense without a jumper and wreck offensive game plans at a Defensive Player of the Year level only to evolve into a survey-and-manipulate chessmaster is equally frightening.

After Antetokounmpo reached the top of the mountain, we wondered whether a player at his athletic peak might come back down having added a new wrinkle or two to his game. From the look of things, he’s returned not with more pace and power, but with more precision—the sort of creative craft that can make something out of nothing. If the rest of the squad can get healthy and harmonize with its lead playmaker, the Bucks might soon make us all forget about the rocky start to their title defense, and turn in a brand of ball that reminds us that all’s well that ends well.