The Milwaukee Bucks may have had a disappointing season thus far, but there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the team’s future. Perhaps the biggest source of this excitement is Giannis Antetokounmpo and the way his game has evolved over the last few weeks.
Ever since All-Star Weekend, Antetokounmpo has taken his game to another level. In his last 11 games, Antetokounmpo is averaging 19.5 points, 10 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, while shooting 48.2 percent from the field.
On February 22, against the Los Angeles Lakers, Antetokounmpo registered his first triple-double of the season, contributing 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and four blocks in 42 minutes of action. Since that game, Antetokounmpo has put together two more triple-double performances and now, in less than two weeks, is tied with Hassan Whiteside for third in triple-doubles this season.
After the game, Kobe Bryant spoke to Antetokounmpo and advised him on how to become the great player he is capable of being.
“I said, ‘Listen, that’s just a choice you’re going to have to make,’” Bryant said. “‘If you want to be that great player you have to make certain sacrifices and you’ve got to go after it.’ He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of him believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”
More significant than the fact that Antetokounmpo is putting up huge stat lines is the fact that he is doing it out of position. He has recently taken over as the de facto point guard for the Bucks after Michael Carter-Williams was lost for the season to a hip injury.
We’ve seen Antetokounmpo attempt to play point guard before. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd experimented with the idea in the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League. The results were mixed at best and we didn’t hear much about the idea of using Antetokounmpo as a point guard much since that time. Now, it seems as though those plans are back in action.
“We’re not calling him the point guard, but he’s dictating the offense and he’s doing quite well with it,” Kidd said. “He wants that. He has the skillset to do that. He has the IQ to do it and he’s doing it well. Being consistent with that at 6’11 causes a problem. And you look at some of the passes that he’s able to throw from half court, a bounce-pass to Jabari [Parker] on the run. Those are things that you can’t teach and he has it in him and he’s displayed it.
“The ball is moving, our pace is up, all the stats are up. [Giannis’] skillset is like no other. He has the ability to put it on the floor, he’s working hard on his jump shot, he can post up, he can pass. Giannis is just going through the process, understanding things don’t happen overnight.”
Kidd is right that Antetokounmpo’s skillset is like no other. He is so long and athletic that he can get the ball up the court in as few as three dribbles. His ball-handling has improved significantly since he entered the NBA and he is now able to keep opponents off balance both in transition and in the half court. And now Antetokounmpo is throwing accurate passes all over the court in a wide variety of circumstances, including in transition, cross-court, from the post and in the pick-and-roll. Antetokounmpo still isn’t a pure point guard, but what we’ve seen out of the 21-year-old recently is very exciting.
In these clips, we see how effective Antetokounmpo can be facilitating the Bucks’ offense with his back to the basket.
Antetokounmpo is displaying great patience in the post, waiting for teams to double him so that he can launch a pass to an open teammate. Teams are consistently sending double-teams, underestimating Antetokounmpo’s ability to find and hit the open man. Antetokounmpo isn’t exactly a dominant scorer in the post, so teams may eventually stop cheating on him and force him to be more of a scorer than facilitator with his back to the basket.
But even if opponents take away Antetokounmpo’s ability to facilitate out of the post, there’s almost nothing they can do about his play-making in transition. At 6’11, with a long stride and strong handle, Antetokounmpo is able to jet past his opponents and draw numerous defenders, leading to easy buckets for teammates that are leaking out and running the court.
He is now also able throw pinpoint passes to his teammates from beyond the half-court line, in the half-court and while inbounding the ball.
Not every assist that Antetokounmpo racks up is the product of any heightened point guard skills. There have been times where he makes a simple pass to a player like Jabari Parker or Khris Middleton, who proceed to make a nice play off the dribble to score. Reviewing Antetokounmpo’s recent run as the Bucks’ de facto point guard was a good reminder that there is a lot of liberty taken in determining what constitutes an assist. There were several plays in which a teammate scored after taking more than one or two dribbles, which seemed to be far outside of what would generally be considered an assist. However, even with those liberties, Antetokounmpo has still racked up an impressive number of legitimate assists in these recent games.
Antetokounmpo is certainly unique among other playmakers and point guards for obvious reasons. However, one of the less obvious things about Antetokounmpo is that, unlike many of the top point guards in the league, he doesn’t rack up many assists in the pick-and-roll.
Part of the reason for that is Antetokounmpo is pushing the pace and doing most of his damage in transition. Another reason is the Bucks’ inability to space the court, which is allowing opposing defenses to stay compact and muck up Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll attempts. However, Antetokounmpo is showing that in limited circumstances, he can operate as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he should only get better with more time and experience (and hopefully with better shooters and screen-setting big men around him in the future).
The Bucks still have a lot of issues to figure out. They need to determine what to do with Carter-Williams in the long-term. Carter-Williams’ inability to shoot with any sort of consistency or range is a major problem and limits him to being a Shaun Livingston type of guard. Livingston also can’t shoot with any sort of range, but his length, defensive effort and ability to facilitate an offense make him a very nice backup point guard for any team. If Carter-Williams is set to be that sort of guard, the Bucks need to figure out who will be the long-term starting point guard and to what extent Antetokounmpo will act as the de facto point guard.
Antetokounmpo arguably allows Milwaukee to use Carter-Williams as the starting point guard, but off the ball for long stretches. But that perpetuates one of the Bucks’ biggest problems: they lack shooters and are incapable of spreading out opposing defenses consistently. Antetokounmpo’s development has helped to offset that in this recent run, especially with the rapidly developing chemistry between him and Jabari Parker. Still, this team needs more shooting and needs to figure out how much it can rely on Antetokounmpo to be its leading playmaker. And Antetokounmpo needs to add consistency to his jumper and stretch his range to the three-point line. Right now he is getting by despite not having a jumper, but once he adds that to his arsenal, it’s hard to imagine how defenses will slow him down.
Antetokounmpo’s recent play doesn’t solve all of the Bucks’ structural problems, but it sure does provide excitement and hope for what sort of player he can be and what sort of team Milwaukee can be in the future.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”
Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?
Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.
After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.
Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.
The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.
What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.
Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.
Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.
Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.
We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.
Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.
As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.
Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.
Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.
Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.
Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.
Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.
If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?
It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.